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Quasimodo: The Hero They Could Not Re-Write

By: Richard Harrington

Twitter: @TheLatestByte

Post Date: 2024-01-26

Disney is a language we all can speak. All of us dwell in the shadow cast by the House of Mouse, that looming and imperial cultural entity. Every one of us, no matter our nationality, has been steeped in Disney. If your country had enough electricity to power a VHS in the 1990s, you’ve seen their work. Nearly every girl has dreamed of being a Disney princess- and why not? There is a Disney princess for every imaginable color or creed. Asian girls have Mulan, Native girls have Pocahontas, and red-haired Gaels have Merida. Disney Princes are a harder market to sell, but what boy didn’t want to be Hercules? Fewer polyester dresses and parties, perhaps, but lessons, nevertheless. 


Disney Princes have something in common–at least, those not invented whole cloth or derived from children’s fables—Hercules and his father Zeus, John Smith of Pocahontas, etc. I was mildly outraged as a child when I read the true myths of Heracles and realized that the Disney version was very much a lie: Zeus was not a good-natured stand-in for the fathers of the children who watched the film. Heracles violently murders Megara and his children in a fit of insanity. I wondered what else had been concealed from us.


Perhaps the strongest deviation from reality is, interestingly, the subject of my thoughts here. Quasimodo- the half-formed bell ringer of Victor Hugo’s magnificent work- the eponymous Hunchback of Notre Dame. The novel and the film have little in common and tell very different stories. Hugo’s story could never - should never- be shown to children. We must cotton-wool the world to some degree, lest we corrupt. Yet in doing so, the diligent writers at Disney found themselves with an unsquareable circle: how can Quasimodo triumph?


 You see, all Disney movies are comedies. Not merely because they are amusing, but because they typically end with romantic success, the hallmark of ancient Greek comedy. The classic happy ending of a story, as one professor told me, is rather like Rodney Dangerfield’s pronunciation at the end of Caddyshack; “Hey, everybody! We’re all gonna get laid!”


Indeed, heroes do get laid- within marriage, of course. John Smith wins the heart of Pocahontas, Hercules wins the heart of Megara, Aladdin with Jasmine. Beast regains his very humanity, and love follows. It is a very essential moral lesson to young boys: be a hero, be exceptional, struggle, and sacrifice. If you do, women shall love you. What could be a better motivation for young boys and men, other than the affection and approval of women?


I discussed this with a good friend, who objected to the entire trope. It is a vile thing, she said, for women to be reduced to a prize, something for the winning. This might very well be true, but a prize is, at the least, valuable. Many men dream of possessing intrinsic worth- it would make for an easier life- yet traditionally men acquire worth through the gaining of virtue, and women by the keeping of inherent virtue. The classics such as Cinderella are linked with those of later Disney such as ‘The Lion King’: women are presented as uncomplicated, virtuous beings, static in their character growth. They desire, and desire more- as seen in the obligatory ‘I Want More’ song, where the heroine pines for something better than the hum-drum. The love of a woman is the reward for beating the bad guy, for saving the day, and for slaying the dragon- with a big kiss at the film’s crescendo. That is the audience’s pay-off as much as it is the character’s. The man must struggle to improve himself, to become better- to become a hero. A woman begins as a heroine and must maintain that position. Exceptions exist (such as Mulan), but the chief trope maintains itself. It is Simba who must revolutionize himself: Nala possesses no flaws. 


Such ideas are unpleasant for modern people, so we softened the edges of our moral lessons before ditching them. Nu-Disney is a confused morass of messages that may well amount to the oft-brayed ‘basic human decency’. It is an odd and Rousseau-esque moral assertion, but it’s the only morality we seem to have left. 


This, of course, presents an issue. Quasimodo is, as one would expect, the hero of the film. He is the titular ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’: a sweet-hearted, gentle, painfully shy man of ambiguously-young age. He lives in the bell tower of the great cathedral, and from its heights, he looks down upon Paris with sorrowful envy. He sits like a seagull on a rock, perched above the city of love, utterly alone save for the bells of the cathedral and the voices in his head- for no one else can see his gargoyle friends move, nor hear them speak. His only company, if one can call it that, is the sinister and domineering Judge Frollo, the villain of the piece. 


Quasimodo is alone in the gulping void of his loneliness, carving and painting figurines of people he sees in the streets below, mimicking their voices and imagining one day, somehow, he could join them. His chief song, ‘Heaven’s Light’, is a gut-wrenching admission of his ugliness, his isolation, and the utter impossibility of achieving any true human connection. 


For, unlike all other Disney ‘princes’: Quasimodo is ugly. Tremendously so. He is as Richard III- scarce half-formed, cheated of form by dissembling nature, an envious mountain heaped on his back. Unlike Beast, he has no magical transformation into a handsome man. He must ‘descant on his own deformity.’ He is a prisoner of his flesh and bone, as much as of the stone of Notre Dame itself. And he knows it. Worse, Esmeralda knows it. The children who watch the film know it, although they cannot speak it. The writers knew it and were brave enough to say it. 


‘Hunchback’ is by far the bravest Disney film, and perhaps the most problematic for the orthodoxy of its day- though not ours. The 1990s were a time of good feelings, of civilizational euphoria. Race was invisible, and so was disability. A lie, of course, for disabled children were tormented as ferociously as ever, and race riots never stopped. Yet the story circulating through the culture was that of an ‘end of history’, of old sins forgotten. 


Quasimodo sits alone in the pantheon of heroes. His genuine, awe-inspiring bravery, his rejection of the father figure who tried to drown him as an infant, his saving of his friends, and his physical courage, are not rewarded in the usual way. See, Quasimodo is ugly. He is deformed. Esmerelda could never love him. Who could?   She may like him, or admire him- yet she, instead, chooses Phoebus as her partner- her enemy, the captain of Frollo’s guards, and the two kiss passionately as Quasimodo stares in bitterness and horror. He smashes his figurines and reiterates what he knew all along; that he ‘would never know that warm and loving glow’. 


Yet, unlike the much-reviled sexual rejects of our modern day- the Incels- Quasimodo makes his peace with rejection. It is presented to his credit as an act of sublime nobility. He outright blesses their union and takes his role as a second-rate hero, a mere mascot of Paris. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 


Disney had the sheer guts to tell people what they already knew: a beautiful, vivacious woman will never love someone like Quasimodo, will never have children with him, and will sooner redeem her tribal enemy than unite herself to a failure. This utterly flies in the face of the story we are all told: that there is someone for everyone, that it is what’s inside that matters. Yet, perhaps, it doesn’t- and that is a truth, cruelly spoken today.


The film was produced in the very small valley of time where an ugly but otherwise heroic man dying alone was an unacceptable narrative choice. Before the 1990s, before the anti-bullying campaigns the politeness of offensives, and the great softening of society, it was seen as more normative and often more amusing to mock and torment the weak. The disabled, mentally or otherwise, were kept away from our eyes or put in freakshows, or consigned to a multitude of other grim fates. One could, for example, mock an epileptic as a ‘spastic’ with near impunity, or at the very least be seen as reasonable for deducing that the terribly disabled would die without marriage. We enjoyed a long series of movies- Forrest Gump not least of all- that extolled the virtues of the simple-minded but good-hearted man. No such film would be made today. 


The 1990s were indeed a cruel time, as many of us can remember. The television shows have aged poorly in Zoomer's eyes. Yet it was a liminal time, and now we have once again come to accept the fate of the ugly and awkward. The Age of Nerds is over: 1984-2018.  In our modern and cold age, the Incel has arisen as the acceptable vessel of derision. It is no wonder- they certainly do bring it on themselves- yet many of them are marred, either internally or externally. The initial flaw is usually some psychological disability or physical deficiency, and they internalize that flaw: it is the eternal cause of their exclusion from sports, from friendships, from the arms of beautiful women. They are mocked and excluded, and we accept it without question. Women must have their choice, after all. The narrative choice is once more acceptable.


Yet not at the time, and someone higher up at Disney must have noticed the bad-tasting message. In a cash grab only possible for Disney, they undid all their good work by inventing a sequel out of whole cloth, simply to conjure up someone to love Quasimodo. The film was a forgettable, hollow dud, rightly forgotten. It would do well to wonder why.


My friend disagreed with my assessment of Quasimodo as unworthy of love. Esmerelda had a choice, and he wasn’t it. His ‘worth’ had nothing to do with it. 


I say, of course. Yet Quasimodo was no one’s choice. Not in the movie, nor the novel. Would you, dear reader, marry him?


Would anyone? 

Then why do we keep lying?

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