Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

According to his biographer, Graham Robb, in his award-winning book Victor Hugo, “by the time he fled the country in 1851, Hugo was the most famous living writer in the world . . . His influence on French literature was second only to that of the Bible.” Although Hugo’s life’s work included “seven novels, eighteen volumes of poetry, twentyone plays,” and as Robb writes, “approximately three million words of history, criticism, travel writing and philosophy,” Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame retains the honor of being one of his two most famous works. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was very popular in France when it first came out despite the fact, as Robb states it, “the immediate effect on readers of the time was horror verging on intense pleasure.” The book shocked Hugo’s readers with its “extreme states,” Robb concludes, which included those of poverty and ugliness as well as the evils of power and the consequences of extreme debauchery. Ironically, it was also these extreme states that made the book so popular. This popularity spread across Europe and the United States and soon tourists were flocking to Paris to visit the sites depicted in Hugo’s novel. Many were disappointed at first, writes Robb, with the sad state of the old cathedral, which was in need of a major renovation. But when the literary tourists were shown the word ANA ÃKH carved into the wall, some of their disappointment was allayed. They began to look at the cathedral as Hugo presents it in his novel.

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A century and a half after its publication, The Hunchback of Notre Dame retained its popular appeal, and, although not claimed as Hugo’s best novel (Les Miserables usually claimed that prize), it was praised for Hugo’s detailed account and description of the cathedral as well as a glimpse into fifteenth-century France culture. The novel was deeply embedded in twentieth-century French culture, and the popularity of the novel, no doubt, played a significant part in influencing the French government to finance a restoration of the cathedral. Its effect could also be seen in the many interpretations that movie producers give it about every thirty years. Popular all over the world, Hugo is especially revered in France. As his biographer, Laurence M. Porter, in his book Victor Hugo, explains, Hugo’s writing has sometimes been referred to as simplistic because of his “dualistic rhetoric of light versus darkness,” which implies an uncomplicated and noncomplex view of life. Although the characters in Hugo’s novel may seem simplistic, Porter writes, closer study of his novels show that “[Hugo] repeatedly implies a cosmic vision deeper than the limited visions of his characters. Hugo finds a hidden God revealed not through the rites of a church but through nature and the human heart.”

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Critical Evaluation

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