William B. Jones, Jr.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED No. 18)

From THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME: INTRODUCTION (CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED No. 18, Jack Lake Productions, 2009)


Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a man of contradictions and extremes. The son of a Napoleonic general and a royalist mother, he spent part of his childhood as a Spanish viscount and part in near-poverty. Betrayed by his wife Adele and his friend the critic Sainte-Beuve, he was almost compulsive in collecting women, maintaining a longtime affair with actress Juliette Drouet and dallying with the young rising star Sarah Bernhardt while in his seventies. As a young man he was an ardent royalist and counted the king of France as a friend. In a reversal of the usual pattern he became, as he grew older, more liberal—and even radical.

Hugo became an exile in 1851, finding the hospitality of England (which he despised) and the Channel Islands preferable to the regime of Napoleon III. In 1859, he refused an offer of amnesty and waited until 1870 for the implosion of "Napoleon the Little" in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. He returned in time for the horrors of the suppression of the Paris Commune and dined on animals sent by the Paris zoo. Like Dante and Joyce, he wrote his greatest works while living apart from his beloved native soil. Poet, playwright, novelist, and acclaimed leader of the Romantic movement in France, he died before his literary reputation was eclipsed, and his funeral in 1885 brought two million admirers into the streets of Paris.

Although Hugo embraced contradictions and inconsistencies in his own life, his writings—and especially his novels—reveal a striking consistency in thematic concerns. In his major works of fiction, human beings are pitted against forces greater than themselves, whether social, historical, political, or natural. Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE-DAME (CI 18), Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES (CI 9), Gilliatt in THE TOILERS OF THE SEA (CI 56), and Gwynplaine in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (CI 71) are spiritual brothers representing and in different ways speaking for oppressed, brutalized humanity.

When Hugo published NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS in 1831, he revolutionized HERNANI. This structurally complex work in which history intersects with emotion is in part a meditation on the 15th-century transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Hugo’s novel did more to change the way people thought about the Middle Ages in general and Gothic architecture in particular than any other work in the modern era. NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS was, as John Porter Houston has noted, "an important gesture in the history of taste" (Houston 34). From it sprang a newfound reverence for and desire to preserve the artifacts of the past.

The well-loved book is usually known in English by the title the author hated, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. In English, the title emphasizes the misshapen bellringer Quasimodo, one of the novel’s three principal human characters..., while the original French keeps the focus where Hugo intended it—on the cathedral and the city of Paris, which are, in a sense, the true main characters of the work. Also central to the novel is the concept of ananke, the Greek word for fate, which, according to the author, he found "while visiting, or rather rummaging, about Notre-Dame ... in an obscure nook of one of the towers, ... engraved by hand upon the wall[.] ... It is upon this word that this book is founded." ... Fate links all the relationships in the novel and propels the story toward its inevitable tragic conclusion. Few adaptations of the book seem capable of bearing its burden of ananke, and the 1996 Walt Disney cartoon, now perhaps the best-known film version, misses the point entirely.

In CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED history, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME boasts more cover variants than any other title in the series. The book was originally published by the Gilberton Company in March 1944 as CLASSIC COMICS No. 18, with a campy line-drawing cover by EC artist Allen Simon, who also provided the interior art, depicting a comically grotesque Quasimodo dominating a scene of Parisian mayhem. The scriptwriter, Evelyn Goodman took remarkable liberties with the original text and anticipated the Disney cartoon with its happy ending and brave Captain Phoebus. ...

By 1949, two years after the series’ name was changed to CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, pressure from the anti-comics crusade was felt in the Gilberton editorial offices, and several covers deemed excessively violent or disturbing ... were replaced with unobjectionable—and uninspiring—line drawings. For No. 18, Henry C. Kiefer supplied a suitably bland portrait of Esmeralda holding her goat Djali in the foreground with the cathedral and the shadow of Quasimodo in the background. Although hardly the worst, it was certainly one of the weakest covers to appear in the Gilberton-Frawley line. ...

A painted-cover replacement by an unidentified artist was issued in September 1957, again with the Simon interiors intact. Known by collectors as the "Gina Lollobrigida cover," a reference to the 1956 film that featured the Italian actress as Esmeralda, the painting showed the beautiful gypsy ministering to Quasimodo on the scaffold. This edition was reprinted in September 1958 and subsequently discontinued. ...

Gilberton released a faithful abridgment by Al Sundel in the fall of 1960, with artwork by the respected freelancers Reed Crandall and George Evans. ... Evans’s superbly rendered features of Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Frollo were all but definitive, Crandall’s horses and detailed historical framework were exquisitely drawn, and Gerald McCann’s vibrant painted cover with a Quasimodo who actually fit Hugo’s description of the character combined to make the redesigned Hunchback one of the best books of the series. ...

Selected Works

Juvenile Fiction
PETIT JEAN: A WILDERNESS ADVENTURE is a reimagining and a relaunching of a popular legend of French Colonial North America.
Cultural History
A significant expansion of the critically acclaimed first edition, CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED: A CULTURAL HISTORY, SECOND EDITION, carries the story of the "World's Greatest Juvenile Publication" into the 21st century.
A comprehensive study of the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED series of comic-book adaptations of literary masterpieces.
Introductions
Reissued, recolored edition of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED No. 35, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (2011).
Reissued, recolored edition of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED No. 78, JOAN OF ARC (2009).
Reissued, recolored edition of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED No. 18, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (2009).
Literary Criticism
This collection of critical essays by international Stevenson scholars reflects current favorable critical response.

Quick Links

Find Authors