by Michael Woods
Mrs Quasimodo muses on her betrayal by a husband who fell in love with a beautiful young gypsy woman, forsaking the wife who is as physically repugnant to others as himself.
Sympathy for the sadness of Quasimodo's predicament is normally the response elicited in readers of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). He is marginalised and ostracised by those whose judgement is influenced by outward appearances. Such attitudes are very much bound up with the Neoplatonic conception of beauty wherein physical deformity was thought to indicate inner moral corruption.
Mrs Quasimodo relates how she fell in love with the sound of the bells as she worked in the fields as young woman, long before she met and married her husband. They are clearly special to her, 'I'd loved them since childhood' and it seems that she finds a soul mate in her husband who 'swung an epithalamium' (line 34) for her when they were married. Their shared physical ugliness certainly gives them some affinity but this is transcended in their appreciation of the music of the bells. They are also brought together as outcasts from a society that considers them 'Gross' (line 56). She describes herself as 'an ugly cliché in a field' (line 6) indicating her self-awareness as well as an acute sense that she is a compendium of all the negative aspects of humanity that society despises. She is not a town sophisticate and is, by its own reckoning, ugly and fat. She stoically endured vilification in her village and remained 'sweet-tempered'. (line 5) emphasising that there is an interior as well as an exterior dimension to people that can be psychologically damaged. When she says that she believed that the bells 'could make it rain' she is investing them with magical possibility as they represent for her the possibility of people like her having access to beauty through their music and escape to place beyond suffering.
Having been lured by the bells she seeks anonymity in the city. Living 'alone up seven flights' (line 15) her solitary life is conveyed through the details of a colourless diet of 'boiled potatoes' (line 16) and monochromatic vista of 'grey lead roofs' (line 18). The 'single silver fish' (line 17) she fries for dinner emphasises her solitary condition. When 'the bells began' (line 20) she is so intoxicated by their sound that she forgets her self-consciousness and finds 'the campanologists beneath their ropes'. They make her welcome 'telling their names' (line 25). Here, Duffy uses the word 'telling' to chime with 'tolling' and there is a clear sense that the names of the bells may well have been introduced as well as the bell-ringers themselves. This is a tenable reading as we learn later in the poem that Quasimodo does have names for all the bells. When introduced to him, his future wife feels 'a thump of confidence' (line 27) because, for once in her life she has met someone who is as ugly as she is. Her joy is conveyed through the image of sudden fire, 'a struck match in my head'. (line 28) The graphic 'he fucked me underneath the gaping, stricken bells / until I wept' (lines 31-2) communicates a frank avowal of the enjoyment of sex for its own sake from her point of view. Its less than romantic tone could also hint that, from Quasimodo's point of view, she offered him the sexual release that no other woman would ever entertain. His later betrayal of his wife certainly suggests that, in retrospect, he was simply making do with her in the absence of someone more to his liking. The physically vigorous, and even violent words, 'thump', 'struck' and 'fucked' draw attention to the uninhibited physicality of the scene being viewed by the personified, refined and 'gaping' (line 31) bells.
In observing 'Something had changed' Duffy's pun alerts the reader to Mrs Quasimodo's observation of a situation that is naturally couched in musical terms. A campanologist rings 'changes' and it is clear that her life will be played to a different tune now that her husband has fallen in love with someone else. Her change in fortune follows her kissing 'the cold lips of a Queen next her King'. This impulsive act is curiously erotic and perhaps she feels a scintilla of betrayal of her husband is involved and may superstitiously believe that this was a factor resulting in his abandonment of her. He has 'no more love than stone' (line 78) for her, reminding us that love is as impossible for her now as it is for the stone carved 'sullen gargoyles, fallen angels' (line 58) of the cathedral.
Mrs Quasimodo's 'ecstasy of loathing' (line 94) of herself drives her to self-injury and then angry revenge. In destroying the bells' ability to chime she takes away the solace Quasimodo found in them and the source of her original enchantment with them. The physical, deliberate use of tools for destruction of the bells is counterpointed with the poignant sense of the killing of the music they make. 'No more arpeggios, or scales, no stretti, trills' (line122) and the fact that 'clarity of sound' (line127) will cease to 'purify the air' (line128) of 'smudgy autumn nights' (line126) emphasises the centrality of the bells in their relationship. They become rival females and in cutting out a 'brazen tongue' she is also symbolically mutilating the gypsy who she sees as a brazen woman. It is significant that it should be the tongue with its human vocal association that is removed, rendering what was once 'articulate' (line121) 'mute' (line127). In saying 'I climbed inside her' (line111) she is invading her husband's sexual territory. Wielding a 'claw-hammer', 'pliers' and a 'clamp' (lines111-12) we are perhaps put in mind of a shocking medical procedure. This is made more forcefully evident as the bells are called Marie and Josephine. The operation on Marie 'took an agonising hour' (line 113) and the one on Josephine were presumably similar procedures. In order to hurt her husband she has to hurt his women also. In depriving others of their sound at weddings, christenings and funerals we see her ability to wield power over the wider community that both reviled and marginalised her.
Having 'sawed and pulled and hacked' (line135) she had 'silence back' (line136) and in a final, contemptuous act 'pissed' (line141) over the results of her destruction. This earthy language, describing a physical function is consistent with 'fucked' earlier on, illustrating the manner in which harsh experience leads people to see things in a very basic manner if deprived of beauty in life as symbolised by the bells. She speaks of the 'murdered music of the bells' indicating an awareness of the enormity of what she has done and this stresses further the lengths she has been driven to by her husband's treachery.
Like Hugo's novel, this poem challenges society's attitudes to physical deformity and its judgement about what is and isn't beautiful. More than this, though, it exposes the double standards of all men. Quasimodo, himself the ugly outcast, turns his back on his wife, heaping abusive terms upon her: 'You pig. You stupid cow. You fucking buffalo. / Abortion. Cripple. Spastic. Mongol. Ape. '(lines 102-3) These terms are rehearsed by her and used against herself indicating the manner in which she has come to believe them since her self-image is formed in her mind as a direct contrast to the paradigm of beauty represented by the gypsy girl. Where Mrs Quasimodo has an 'ugly head', 'thighs of lard' and a 'wobbling gut' the 'pin-up gypsy' is 'well-formed' and 'so perfect'. The gypsy, Esmerelda was herself rejected by society and persecuted in particular by Frollo, the archdeacon and Phoebus the soldier is 'given sanctuary' (line 92) by Quasimodo. These representatives of church and state indicate intolerance of racial difference by those who are supposed to uphold the rights of those very people.
Above all, this poem challenges attitudes of a society that victimises and excludes individuals who do not conform to its vision of physical beauty. Specifically, the way men expect to be able to have relationships with a perfect, beautiful woman whilst applying no scrutiny to themselves demonstrates their hypocrisy. In assuming that someone they decide is a fat, unattractive woman can have no valid personality attributes demonstrates their shallowness. The reworking of the well known Beauty and the Beast story in Victor Hugo's novel focuses on the relationship between an ugly man and a beautiful woman. Duffy chooses to interrogate Quasimodo's inner beastliness as a means of demonstrating that women, on the whole, simply cannot win. As Mrs Quasimodo says, 'I should have known'. (line 79)
The poem is conversational in tone but Mrs Quasimodo's use of language ranges from the lyrical to the scatological, emphasising extremes of experience - actual and possible -that are open to all human beings.
campanologist: a bell ringer
arpeggio - the sounding of the notes of a chord in quick succession
epithalamion: a wedding song - a very famous example was written by Edmund Spenser (1552/3-1599).
stretti - often used towards the end of a fugue where the subject overlaps the answer; here it emphasises the technical mastery Quasimodo has over the bells
The name Quasimodo is a linking of the first two words of the introit to the mass on Low Sunday, the first after Easter.