I'm Doc M, a historian and long-term Notre Dame book-fan. I'd just thought I'd drop by and say hello, and explain how I got this way. Around 1981-82, I was a 16-17 year old, intending to study mediæval history at university. I discovered the works of François Villon, poet of the 15C Parisian underworld, which led me to Notre Dame de Paris. I got a cheap, US-printed paperback from a station bookstall. The cover was dominated by the ungainly figure of Quasimodo, but my eye was caught by the handsome young priest behind him… (See icon). I'd already read a lot of Dostoevskii, so tortured, intellectual heroes who leave a trail of destruction were already very much my thing. In fact, Claude strikes me as a Dostoevskian type, who's somehow materialised in 15C Paris.
I could identify with the teenaged Claude totally as a teenager myself. Enthusiastic scholar? Yes. Passion for every kind of learning, for learning's sake? Yes. He was my kind of boy. And he's so loving and kind – bringing up his little brother and adopting a severely disabled four-year-old waif when he himself was only nineteen. (And later, even devising sign-language to help Quasimodo communicate when he lost his hearing.) He has books everywhere and his own laboratory! But all this attention to other people's needs has left him in a situation in which there is no-one to whom he can take his. All his life, he's been the good boy, the perfect student, the perfect priest, & c.: then emotions he's been stifling with brutal self-mortification finally break through.
To see this brilliant, passionate young man torn apart and broken because the attitudes with which he has been indoctrinated (mediæval religion was permeated with fear/hatred of women and women's bodies: woman as the ianua diaboli, the Devil's Gateway), and the rules of his job (which plenty of his colleagues ignored) forbid him the love he needs – To see him driven to madness and self-destruction, and destruction of all he loves around him – He breaks my heart. It's like watching a beautiful animal in a snare, lashing out at everyone who tries to help it, and chewing off its own paw in its torment. And for what? A pretty little airhead, who prefers equally airheaded, pretty soldiers. Another Heloïse might have been worth the madness and torment…
(Où est la très sage Helloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Saint-Denis?
Pour son amour ot cest essoyne. – Villon, Ballade des Dames de Temps Jadis)
…but for Esmeralda?
I've never been entirely happy with any of the screen versions. I think part of the problem is that the popular English title, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which Hugo hated) puts Quasimodo centre-stage. But he's not the hero. Hugo's title rightly gives the cathedral itself central place, but of the human characters, it's Claude who drives the story and is the most fully developed psychologically. If films don't portray him as a priest (NAMPI 'Thirteen Points' and Hays Code restrictions in the 1923 and 1939 versions), then the whole point of the story has gone. (He's usually played far too old, as well: he's only in his mid-30s.)
(edited x-post with frollophiles)