About a week ago, I finished reading Notre Dame de Paris (better known to English speakers like me as Hunchback of Notre Dame). As a Way More Than Casual fan of Les Mis, I wanted to make it my goal to read more of Hugo’s novels this year. Given the incredible new cast recording for the Hunchback of Notre Dame musical that was released a few weeks ago and my abiding love for the Disney movie, this seemed the logical choice. I knew the framework of the novel already, and I knew how devastating (and not Disney-fied) it was, but I didn’t account for just how affecting it would be. Haunting is the word that comes to mind. There’s SO much to pull apart; all the social commentary of a Hugo who didn’t quite realize he was a radical yet, who didn’t know he would write Les Mis later but already abhorred the death penalty, the clear religious commentary, the characters, the plot, the last few pages that remain imprinted on my mind, the striking, intense, gorgeous imagery, the (actually really interesting) digressions on architecture and the printing press. The darkness and the combination of a Romantic writer setting his story in a medieval Gothic world. It’s all VERY Hugo, but a bit of a different Hugo than the one I know from Les Mis. It’s a book that will undoutbedly stay with me, a book that I liked a great deal, even if it’s difficult to articulate why.
As a general rule, I don’t often cheer the deaths of characters, even villains, even ones I hate. But when I reached the final pages and Quasimodo pushes Archdeacon Claude Frollo off the edge of Notre Dame because he started laughing (pretty demonically) over the execution of Esmeralda happening in the square below, I could only think
Unlike the more one-dimensional Disney movie version (one of my favorite Disney movies! But there’s not a whole lot of character depth to Frollo. Though he is the scariest villain, and I stand by that argument. Hellfire is also the best villain song) I think at least in part, that somehow, somewhere I was meant to feel the tiniest sliver of symapthy for Frollo, a man who was so preoccupied with his own damnation that he ended up damning himself, a man who lived under such a rigid medieval, religious code of conduct that it repressed everything until it came exploding out. But I couldn’t. I tried, and I still couldn’t. It’s not that I think Hugo LIKES the guy, I think it’s pretty clear he doesn’t given how many times he calls him “the wicked archdeacon” and other similar names, and his obvious sympathies lie with the “outcasts” Quasimodo and Esmeralda, but Hugo is always getting us to question the influence society and the way it’s crafted has on people, but Claude Frollo is not Inspector Javert, the latter of whom I feel very sorry for. Frollo’s an excellently crafted villain (Javert is an antagonist, there’s a difference!); complex with a clear motive and who actually does, much to my surprise, experience human emotions like love, even if the love he does feel is destructive and abusive. He’s well-written and he makes me have to sift through my own thoughts trying to pull out themes. But as a human being, I wanted to jump through the pages of the novel and shove him off the roof myself. I obviously can’t do that, but I won’t lie and say I didn’t imagine it.
The reasons for this are many and varied. For one, although Frollo adopts Quasimodo of his own accord, he also does so because he thinks that if fails the younger brother he’s raising (basically like a son, given the 16 year age gap) that God will forgive him because he took in such a “wretched creature.” But what a father figure Frollo turns out to be! The emotional and physical abuse he puts Quasimodo through in the name of “love” becomes clear duing the Pope of Fools scene when Quasimodo is discovered and although he could surely overthrow Frollo if he wished due to pure strength, instead he gets on his knees and falls at Frollo’s feet. Later, Frollo doesn’t stop Quaismodo from getting arrested for an errand he sent him on, and he doesn’t stop Quasimodo getting whipped at the pillory, he just drives past in his carriage. I could go on. When it comes to his little brother, the one person Frollo could ever possibly stake a claim of true love on, Frollo still fails. He lectures his brother endlessly, and when it comes to it, falls so deep into his infatuation with Esmeralda that he ignores his brother almost entirely, and in the end though it’s Quasimodo who kills Jehan Frollo, it’s no doubt his elder brother’s fault entirely.
All of this, of course, has not even touched on the situation with Esmeralda. To summarize the plot, Frollo essentially follows Esmeralda around, interrogates another character, Pierre Gringoire, about whether or not she’s a virgin (to which Gringoire responds “um…why do you need to know that?”), and then accosts Phoebus in an alley and at Phoebus’ bizzarre invitation, goes up to hide in the room where Phoebus is set to meet (and try to sleep with) Esmeralda.
(Note: Phoebus in the novel is not the nice Phoebus of the Disney movie or the darker new musical version, which is a sort of mesh of the Disney movie and the novel. This guy isn’t gonna order his horse to sit on a guard’s head or stage an impromptu insurrection. He just wants to sleep with Esmeralda and then bolt, leaving empty words of love in his path. Though honestly compared to Frollo he almost seems like nothing).
Anyhow, when it looks like Phoebus and Esmeralda are about to Do the Deed, Frollo stabs Phoebus then jumps out the window, leaving Esmeralda to pay for the crime. She’s charged with Phobeus’ murder (despite the fact that he’s definitely still alive, like do people not check that a “murder” victim isn’t still up and moving around?) put on trial, put through torture, and sentenced to death.
Did I uh. Mention that she’s SIXTEEN in the novel?
So all of this happens, and Esmeralda is there in her jail cell, minding her own buiness and being miserable because, you know, she’s been sentenced to the gallows because of the machinations of men who have latched onto her, and a “mysterious figure in black” comes into her cell. I dunno why Hugo tries to be mysterious here, I KNOW that asshole is Frollo, but Hugo likes to do that sort of thing, and it’s kind of a hallmark of 19th century literature. MYSTERY I know who it is Hugo, no other jerk in this book wears all black and sneaks around. So Frollo comes into her jail cell and despite having not previously spoken to her but instead stared creepily at her, followed her around Paris, tried to have her kidnapped and then letting his ward take the fall, and then STABBING the man she loves (I mean Phoebus is a jerk but Esmeralda doesn’t know that and even if she did, still her choice! Plus he’s nothing compared to Frollo, at this point) begins professing his undying love for her, and if she’ll only love him back, he’ll save her.
Hmmm, I thought. THIS rhetoric sounds familiar, why does Claude Frollo sound like an MRA/Nice Guy commenter on an article, any article even distantly related to feminism?. For example there’s this exchange:
“Listen, before I met you, young girl, I was happy…”
“And I too!” she sighed feebly.
“Don’t interrupt me.”
FROLLO ARE YOU KIDDING ME.
And then this:
“I thought, also, confusedly, that a trial would deliver you into my power, that in prison I should possess you; that there,you could not escape me. Since you had possessed me so long, I desired to possess you in my turn.”
(I’d also like to point out that Pierre Gringoire, who is technically married to Esmeralda-she saved his life after he sort of accidentally found the Court of Miracles, agreeing to marry him to save him from death even though he’s a stranger-asks if she wants to actually do the things married couples do, and when she says no, he drops it, content to be her friend. He also was one of Frollo’s students and a MUCH BETTER PERSON than his teacher.)
Because…that doesn’t sound rapey, Frollo, you absolute horror (later on, as Esmeralda takes sanctuary in Notre Dame for a few weeks, saved by Quaismodo, Frollo does essentially attempt to rape her, and is in fact, stopped by his ward). AND THEN, when discussing the torture that Esmeralda experienced, he has the gall to ask HER if SHE knows all that HE has suffered. HIM. Because obviously your boner is more painful that torture and jailing and death like are you serious. Throughout, Frollo scarcely takes any blame for his own situation; Esmeralda drew him in, Esmeralda betwitched him, simply by existing in his field of vision. This is only emphasized toward the end of the book, when Frollo “rescues” Esmeralda from Notre Dame as the king sends men to break the sanctuary and have her executed (because people attempting to save her ended up in an insurrection and he CAN’T HAVE THAT better make the innocent 16-year-old child pay for it). He takes her to the gallows and offers her a choice; him, or death. In his mind, he rescused her (though it’s arguable as to whether or not being saved by him really counts, especially given his ultimatum and just given…him) and he says he loves her, so therefore she owes him herself in return. He even says, “after all, when a man loves a woman, it is not his fault.” RIGHT obviously not. A great many characters in the novel are dead at this point, and though Frollo didn’t put his hands to them, he was still covered in their blood, like a shadow no one sees, but that carries death around with him. When lamenting the death of his younger brother, he says “And it was because of me! Because of this woman, because of her!” It’s his fault, but he places the blame squarely on Esmeralda, a 16-yeat-old girl he’s been lusting after and who he believes owes him because of his own feelings.
Esmeralda rejects him again and again, and he forces her into his arms, kissing her and gives his final choice: “the grave, or my bed” he says. In the end, Esmeralda ends up dead. So does Frollo, but even that does not seem enough for all the pain and death he left in his wake; Esmeralda, Quaismodo, his younger brother Jehan, Clopin, countless Romani and soldiers. All because one girl would not give into his advances (besides the fact that you know. HE’S A CATHOLIC PRIEST. Not supposed to have a girlfriend Frollo.) a girl he put up on a terrible pedestal without even speaking to her, at first. This Frollo is undoubedly more human than the one we witness in the Disney movie (though the Disney musical definitely fleshes him out well!) we see that he loves, even if it’s a terrible love, and we see that people have loved him (Quasimodo, his brother, at least a bit), but somehow that makes what he does even worse.
Villains aren’t villains because they don’t have love or other human emotions, but because they make horrible use of them. There are surely themes about religious and societal repression making all of these emotions and sexual thoughts explode out of Frollo in this way, and that’s something I’m going to have to pick apart more. He thinks he’s trying to be good, he really believes in what he’s saying, and that’s what makes him all the more frightening. But still, it won’t be enough for me to feel sorry for him, or enough for me to forgive him. And while it’s true that most Nice Guys/MRA guys don’t often offer women ultimatums of “the grave or my bed” as far as I know, Frollo’s words still rang eerily familiar. He essentially believes all women evil temptresses, and yet would burn down the world to have Esmeralda. It’s not his fault though, obviously, men can’t control themselves (sarcasm). Sounds a little bit like that argument they make in schools when they say girls’ shoulders distract the boys from studying. The fault falls on the girls, and never the boys. That’s certainly true in Frollo’s mind, and men like him, men who believe women owe them the world because that’s what they’ve been told over and over again, walk around every day. Don’t get me wrong, things have certainly improved since 1482, but there are still so many ways in which some don’t look at women as people, but props. And that’s what’s terrifying about Claude Frollo, and has been to me since I was 9-years-old and saw the Disney movie; he’s real.
In the afterword, Hugo’s biographer talks about the monsters in Hugo’s mind being spilled forth onto the pages of this book, and that certainly seems true. I’m not sure exactly how Frollo figures into that, but for women everywhere, men like that are the nightmare. Claude Frollo, Nice Guy ™ in 15th century suit. Or in this case, vestments.