I suppose it’s a tale as old as time. For as long as there have been men, there have been women willing to believe everything they say. More than a century before Fleetwood Mac sang about it, epic tales were written about the gullibility of the fairer sex and the jerks who take advantage of it.
***Before I begin, I have to apologize. I strive to keep a spoiler-free blog, but out of necessity of discussing the subject matter, this post contains spoilers for The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo & Goethe’s Faust.***
It was just by coincidence that I read these particular books back to back for my reading challenge, but doing so revealed a glaring similarity between the two classic novels – namely that each of them stars a young woman whose life is literally destroyed because she believed a man when he said he loved her.
In case you’re not familiar with the story from a film adaptation (likely Disney’s 1996 animated take), The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831, is about Claude Frollo, a priest who falls in love with a 16 year old gypsy girl named Esmeralda & conspires to have her put to death unless she agrees to be his. Unlike the Disney version, Esmeralda dies by hanging; Quasimodo the hunchback, also in love with her, refuses to leave her body & burns to death on the funeral pyre.
Cheerful, I know. But moving on…
Published in 1808, Goethe’s Faust: First Part is quite a bit shorter than Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but it’s no less brutal on its female character.
The scholar Faust’s soul is the subject of a bet between God & Mephistopheles (the devil). If Mephistopheles can tempt Faust away from the pursuit of truth, he gets to keep the man’s soul. If he fails, he must admit that God was right to give intelligence to mankind.
Faust, who has grown frustrated with the limits of human knowledge, agrees to the bet on one condition: if Mephistopheles can provide him with one moment of ultimate happiness & pleasure – one in which Faust wants “to linger awhile” – he will gladly die on that day & serve the devil in the afterlife.
After his youth is restored via a witch’s potion, Faust becomes enamored of a young woman named Margaret, who is “older than fourteen.” He lavishes her with jewels (provided by Mephistopheles) & succeeds in seducing her. Soon afterwards, however, he grows bored & abandons her.
For her love for Faust, Margaret accidentally kills her mother, finds herself a pregnant outcast, is tormented by demons, loses her mind, & is sentenced to death for drowning the child she conceived by him (though whether she did that before or after losing her mind is up for debate).
As if death weren’t punishment enough, the path to these ladies’ doom is served up with a healthy, chauvinistic helping of what makes a woman valuable in a man’s eyes.
Naturally both Esmeralda & Margaret are beautiful since everyone knows that’s what counts above all else (please hear my sarcasm here). Margaret is “wondrous fair” with “lip so red, the cheek’s clear dawn,” while the gypsy girl is “a salamander – a nymph – a goddess – a bacchante of Mount Maenalus!” Much is made of Esmeralda’s delicate dancer’s figure, especially her little feet. There might even be more written in The Hunchback of Notre Dame about Esmeralda’s little feet than about the hunchback himself.
But both young ladies are considered beautiful by their adorers in large part because they are “pure” (a.k.a. untouched by a man). Faust praises Margaret as “so sweetly virtuous & pure” one line before admiring her red lips, likely indicating he places it at a higher value. Esmeralda abstains from men in the hopes of fulfilling a gypsy prophecy – that she would find her long lost parents if she remains a virgin. When Claude Frollo suddenly suspects she might not be a virgin after all, he becomes so enraged that he nearly beats one of his students.
Though Esmeralda goes to the gibbet with her celibacy unscathed, as I mentioned earlier, Margaret pays a heavy price for losing hers. But it gets worse.
Margaret’s brother Valentine once bragged about his sister’s purity, but after he finds out she’s damaged goods, he waits outside her window to catch the perpetrator. Faust, returning for one last tryst, is caught by Valentine. A fight ensues, & Faust mortally wounds Valentine before fleeing.
As he’s dying in his sister’s arms, Valentine’s last words are a wish that he could kill Margaret for her wickedness:
Thou pimp most infamous, be still!
Could I thy withered body kill,
‘Twould bring, for all my sinful pleasure,
Forgiveness in the richest measure.
This, of course, touches on a common theme in the “players only love you when they’re playing” canon – that women are held to a higher standard than men when it comes to their precious purity. Boys will be boys, of course, but for the ladies, it’s chastity or death.
And can we talk about this imagery for a minute? Her “withered” body? So a girl who is “older than fourteen” becomes sexually active & not only forfeits her right to live as far as a man is concerned, but now she’s also rotting from the inside??? In the scene prior to his fight with Faust, Valentine was in the company of male friends, listening to them brag about their sexual exploits. Curious that he didn’t wish to kill any of them or pronounce them withered.
Of these two unfortunate ladies, it’s easier for me to sympathize with Margaret; she’s just a young girl who quickly got in over her head. But when it comes to Esmeralda, it’s really difficult to see her as much more than an idiot.
When Claude Frollo first sees Esmeralda dancing, he orders the hunchback to kidnap the gypsy girl for him. The plot is interrupted by mustache-twirling Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers, however, & Esmeralda falls obsessively in love with him. This happens in Book 2, chapter 4, which means that she spends the next 47 chapters pining for him – straight to her doom in Book 11, chapter 2.
But let me back up a bit.
Phoebus is engaged to be married, yet when he sees Esmeralda, he basically forgets his fiancee & doesn’t contact her for two months. He takes Esmeralda to an inn, where he tells her he loves her & tries to seduce her. But when Frollo (who was led to the inn by Phoebus & given permission to spy on the tryst from the next room)(yes, really) slips in & stabs the captain before fleeing, she is arrested for Phoebus’ murder.
As Esmeralda languishes in prison, awaiting her execution, Frollo visits her cell & confesses everything – a four page long admission of how he framed her so that she would have no choice but to escape with him or die. And how does Esmeralda react? What does she say to the monster who has stalked her, attempted to rape her, & arranged her death?
The young girl could find but one word:
“Oh, my Phoebus!”
A proud moment.
It’s only when Frollo says that Phoebus “must indeed be dead” that she finally feels some anger & shoves him away “like an enraged tigress.” This is saying something because she spends most of the novel reacting to stress by either fainting or going into a stupor & passively allowing herself to be carried away.
Meanwhile, Phoebus, who is in fact alive, has recovered from his wounds & returned to his fiancee, having explained his absence by saying he was injured in battle. While it would seem natural to want to find out who tried to kill him & why, Phoebus instead is afraid of being “ashamed as a fox caught by a hen” & basically decides it’s better to just forget the whole thing than risk being embarrassed.
As in the Disney film, Quasimodo saves Esmeralda from her execution & brings her to the cathedral to claim sanctuary. When Frollo finally realizes that the gypsy girl was saved from death, he tricks a friend of Esmeralda’s into enticing her out of the cathedral. The priest then threatens to summon the guards unless she runs away with him. She refuses & flees, finding refuge in “the Rat Hole,” a cell housing a mad woman. The woman, coincidentally Esmeralda’s long lost mother, lies to the soldiers in an effort to steer them away from her daughter’s hiding place.
But just as the soldiers are leaving, Esmeralda hears Phoebus’ voice. Ever the brainiac, she runs to the window & calls for him, revealing herself. The soldiers drag her to the gallows, & her mother dies trying to defend her. Esmeralda is hung to death, slowly & agonizingly. Phoebus is apparently on a lunch break or something during this time.
And how does the honorable captain make out after all is said & done?
Phoebus de Chateaupers also came to a tragic end; he married.
That’s cool. Marriage and hanging to death are basically the same.
Is there anything to be learned on the other side of all this drama? Were both girls doomed precisely because they exhibited the very beauty & purity that the patriarchy has for eons preached to young girls? Were they little more than story devices used by their respective authors to affect the character arc of their male leads? Were they just too young to know better?
Perhaps the simplest advice is this: Ladies, when you see a Phoebus or a Faust – run!
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All movie stills via Movie Stills Database; intended for editorial use only.