On Monday, Parisians watched in horror as flames engulfed the Notre-Dame cathedral, leading to the destruction of its roof and the collapse of its iconic spiral. French citizens are grieving—“Paris is beheaded,”one Pierre-Eric Trimovillas opined to the The New York Times—and in this time of sorrow, many are looking to Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a novel that is as much a love letter to the cathedral as it is the story of two doomed lovers.
According to the Guardian’s Jon Henley, the book has shot to number one on Amazon France’s bestseller list, and various editions occupy other slots in the top rankings. This is not, as Henley points out, the first time that French readers have sought solace in literature after a national tragedy; in the wake of the 2015 Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which chronicles the author's years as a young writer in Paris, became France’s fastest-selling book.
Returning to The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in the wake of this week's disaster is fitting not only because the novel is centred around the cathedral, but also because it was written at an earlier time when Notre-Dame was in crisis. Construction on the building began in 1163 and was only completed in 1345. But by the early 19th century, when Hugo wrote his novel, this grandiose structure was in a bad state.
Ill-advised renovations during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) saw stained glass removed in favor of clear windows, a pillar demolished to make way for carriages and an “ornate partition” removed, reports the Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell. Then came the French Revolution. Viewed as a symbol of the church and monarchy, Notre-Dame was ransacked by revolutionaries who beheaded statues, stripped lead from the roof to make bullets and melted down bronze bells to make canons.
The cathedral was returned to the Catholic Church in 1802, but no one was fully invested in tending to it. The building’s Gothic architecture “had given way to the Renaissance,” Richard Buday wrote for Arch Daily in 2017. “By then Parisians considered medieval buildings vulgar, deformed monstrosities.”
Hugo disagreed. He thought Gothic architecture was magnificent and wanted to see Notre-Dame restored. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (or Notre-Dame de Paris, as it is called in French) is set in the 1400s, when the cathedral was still in its glory days, but the author takes the opportunity to lament its decline. “[I]t is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer,” he wrote.
The cathedral is a tangible presence in the novel, the “moral focus” of the story, according to Buday. When it was published in 1831, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame became a hit and inspired French citizens to look at the imposing structure with new eyes. A restoration effort began in the 1840s.
Repairing extensive damages to Notre-Dame caused by the recent fire will likely take years and cost billions of dollars. But reassuring a wounded nation, French President Emmanuel Macron promised the building would be restored.
“I say to you very solemnly this evening: this cathedral will be rebuilt by us all together,” he said. “We will rebuild Notre-Dame because that is what the French expect, because that is what our history deserves, because it is our destiny.”