Historian, Philosopher and Poet
If I can quote one passage from Hugo’s books that best reflects the author, the focus of his passions, the style and architecture of his novels, it would be the following:
“There he was, serious, motionless, absorbed — all eye, all ear, all thought. All Paris was at his feet, with the thousand spires of its buildings, and its circular horizon of gentle hills, with its river winding beneath its bridges and its people pouring through its streets, its cloud of smoke, and its mountain chain of roofs crowding close to Notre-Dame with their double slopes of mail. In this whole city the Archdeacon’s eye sought just one point of the pavement, the Place du Parvis, and among the whole multitude just one figure, the Bohemian.”
Hugo referred to himself as a historian, philosopher and poet. He studied history, contemplated human destiny, and expressed his ideals through his writings, i.e., through the struggles and voices of his heroes, for whom he prepared the whole world and history as the grand stage.
Ecce Notre-Dame, Ecce Homo
This book can be divided into four Parts, like four movements of a symphony, with mini climaxes in the second and third movement.
Part I: Festival of Fools (Book I-II)
Hugo introduces all the main characters in the dramatic setting of a festival in the streets of Paris in 1482. It was in the late Middle Ages, a year before the birth of Martin Luther. One of the characters is a poet, who is the thread that runs through the entire novel and at whose expense Hugo showcases his self-deprecating humor.
Part II: Ecce Notre-Dame (Book III-V)
The view zooms out, so to speak, and Hugo describes a bird’s-eye view of Paris and its history as immortalized in its architecture, the centerpiece of which is Notre-Dame de Paris. Here is the most beautiful chapter of the book, a symphonic description of the life and architecture of Paris.
To paraphrase Hugo, Notre-Dame is the expression of the world. Its architecture, a transition from Roman style with its low circular arches and heavy pillars to Gothic style with its pointed arches, is a reflection of the progress of society since ancient times, from unity and hierarchy to democracy and freedom.
Hugo proclaims, “Architecture is dead”. Architecture, as a means of expression for mankind, will be replaced by printing, which is cheaper and more convenient, and therefore provides more freedom of expression. If Hugo were alive today, he would perhaps predict that digital media would replace their analog counterpart, e.g. electronic books would replace printed books, and something like Wikipedia would be the new Tower of Babel.
Part III: Ecce Homo (Book VI-VIII)
After setting the historical stage, Hugo zooms in on the main character of the novel, i.e., the human face of Notre-Dame, the Archdeacon and the bell-ringer. To me, they are one person. The physical deformity of the latter illustrates the spiritual deformity of the former, and the residual tender loving-kindness in the former is magnified in the latter. (If I might add, a similar device is used in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray.)
The main theme and conflict of the book seem to be unrequited love. The Archdeacon’s passionate but deadly lust for the Bohemian girl, the bell-ringer’s tender but primitive devotion to her, and the Bohemian girl’s worship of her idol. In contrast, there are also exhilarating moments when love triumphs over lust, over baseness and over the condemning laws. When the ugly and pitiable becomes august and beautiful.
Beneath the theme of unrequited love, however, there is an undercurrent, which is the reason, I think, why the book was once banned by the Catholic Church: The Archdeacon represents the Church, more specifically, the religious hierarchy and laws of the Church, and the Bohemian girl, the unbeliever. The Church pursues the unbeliever, but because the religious laws bring nothing but shackles and death, the latter shrinks from him and pursues her own idol, Phoebus “the Sun god”. This is made poignantly manifest when the Archdeacon claimed that only he could save the Bohemian and demanded her to choose between him and the gallows, and she chose the latter.
Part IV: The Siege of Notre-Dame (Book IX-XI)
Finally, the view returns to the bigger stage, when the tension between hierarchy and freedom mingled with lawlessness becomes unbearable, there broke out the siege of Notre-Dame, a figure of the siege of the Bastille. Ironically, the siege was instigated by the Archdeacon himself and the poet, signifying that revolts against the Church have their roots in its own corruption through lust. Alas, there was no freedom or deliverance except through death.