The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Victor Hugo


By the time Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame (published in French as Notre-Dame de Paris), he had already made a name for himself as a poet and dramatist. Although he had written one other novel (Han d'Islande, 1823), he had not really been known as a novelist. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was to change all that. Even more popular than it became throughout the twentieth century and into the early 2000s, this romantic story grabbed the imagination of the French people who embraced it for its melodramatic storyline and Hugo's detailed rendering of the life and culture of fifteenth-century Paris.

On the surface, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a story of unrequited love between a man horribly disfigured and a beautiful woman who loves someone else. But Hugo was a very complex writer who gave his readers a much more complicated story. Underneath the unfolding of Quasimodo's love of La Esmeralda is a historical drama set in 1482, a time that in many ways mirrored the times and political struggles of Hugo's nineteenth-century world. With almost the entire novel set in the cathedral of Notre Dame, the novel also conveys a spiritual element not only in its setting but in its characters. There is a priest who has lost his spiritual path; there is a physically disfigured man who is shunned and must find solace not in the material world but deep within himself; and there is the beautiful woman, innocence personified, who searches for a spiritual form of love.

Although his contemporaries applauded his novel, in many ways Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame was also shocking in its time. Hugo was, after all, a central figure of the Romantic Movement in literature. Readers, prior to Hugo's works, were used to literature that was influenced more by the classical form, which emphasized rational rather than emotional topics and points of view. Also, Hugo's main character, Quasimodo, is physically repulsive, whereas in classical works, writers focused on idealized form. The Hunchback of Notre Dame also focuses on the personal rather than on classical universal themes, which may be one of the reasons why the novel retained its popularity for almost two hundred years.

Author Biography

Victor Hugo was one of the most influential of early French Romantic writers, a man who so dominated French literature that the French refer to the nineteenth century as the century of Victor Hugo. He was born in Besançon on February 26, 1802, the third son of Leopold, an apparently ruthless soldier who rose in rank to general, and Sophia, who because she was unhappily married, eventually separated from Leopold and took her children to Paris where she raised them. Hugo turned to poetry early in life and by the age of seventeen was with the help of his brothers publishing a magazine, Conservateur Litteraire. Three years later, he had published a collection of poems that gained the attention of, as well as a royal pension from, King Louis XVIII. By the time he was thirty, his name was both well known and well respected.

Much involved with the new literary movement, Hugo was one of a group of writers who argued against French classicism and in favor of French romanticism. Eighteenth-century classicism was a more conservative movement that emphasized the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome and valued form tightly regulated by rules; nineteenth-century French romanticism, on the other hand, valued the emotional and more personal experience, as demonstrated in many of Hugo's works, especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After marrying Adele Fucher, his childhood sweetheart, in 1822, Hugo's house became the meeting place for the early French romantic writers. The couple eventually had four children.

Between 1826 and 1843, Hugo experienced a great rush of creativity, producing three novels,

numerous essays, and five volumes of poems, as well as many dramatic pieces. However, tragedy stuck in 1843, when his daughter and her husband died, draining Hugo of inspiration and initiating a long period in which he did not write.

Then in 1851, after Napoleon III seized full power, Hugo, who was a strong proponent of democracy, feared for his life and left Paris with his mistress Juliette Drouet and lived in exile for almost twenty years. He returned to Paris in 1870, after the fall of the Second Empire and was elected a senator of the Third Republic six years later.

Hugo continued to write despite his political activities and the deaths of his wife, his mistress, and his sons. His health slowly declined and in 1878, Hugo suffered a stroke. Then on May 22, 1885, he died. The people of Paris honored him by coming out in the millions for his funeral. He was given a national funeral and was buried in the Pantheon. As Laurence M. Porter, in his book Victor Hugo, describes him, as "a master of the lyric poem, the novel, the theater, and the essay, deeply committed to social reform, and the major symbol of resistance to Napoleon III's empire, Hugo became a national monument during his lifetime." After his death, Hugo's life works were collected in a forty-five-volume edition.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1–11

Hugo begins The Hunchback of Notre Dame with a detailed account of the life and culture of fifteenth-century Paris. There is to be a royal wedding, and the city is alive with performances and pomp. One of the main characters is introduced in the person of Pierre Gringoire, a poet and playwright, whose drama is presented amidst noise and many interruptions.

One of those interruptions is caused by La Esmeralda, a woman whose beauty attracts crowds and cheers. After the play is finally abandoned, Gringoire follows La Esmeralda, watches her dance, and later witnesses Quasimodo attempting to kidnap her. Claude Frollo has prompted Quasimodo to take the woman back to the cathedral. When Gringoire tries to rescue La Esmeralda, Quasimodo hits him and knocks him out. In the meantime, the handsome captain of the king's archers, Phoebus, arrests Quasimodo as Frollo sneaks away.

Chapters 12–20

Gringoire searches for a place to sleep and ends up with the gypsies, whose leader Clopin Trouillefou threatens to kill him unless a woman in their midst agrees to marry him. La Esmeralda, who recognizes Gringoire, agrees to save him. After they are married, La Esmeralda tells him she wants only a platonic relationship. Gringoire accepts but secretly hopes that one day he will win her love.

Hugo then describes the cathedral of Notre Dame. Great details are provided about the church's history and its architecture. Next Hugo offers a broader view of fifteenth-century Paris, its buildings and its various centers. There is a flashback to the time when Quasimodo was abandoned as an infant and left in the church. The history of priest Frollo is then provided. Readers learn about Frollo's singular focus on an intellectual life as well as his concern for Quasimodo and for Frollo's younger brother Jehan, whose care Frollo under-took upon the death of their parents. Jehan has turned out to be a disappointment, and Frollo plans to do a better job with Quasimodo.

A fuller description is offered about Quasimodo's life, which is fairly well cloistered in the cathedral. Not being able to socialize because people are fearful of him, Quasimodo makes friends with the statues and the bells, which are his responsibility to ring on special occasions. The bells, however, have deafened him.

Chapters 21–30

King Louis XI makes a surprise visit (under disguise and using the name Compère Tourangeau) to Frollo, who has gained a reputation as a learned scholar not only in the spiritual realm but also in medicine and alchemy. The king's physician, Jacques Coictier, does not trust Frollo and insists that Frollo is a madman. Frollo discusses the power of the new printing presses, which he suggests to the king will eventually undermine the authority of the church as well as diminish the other arts such as architecture, which in classical and medieval times was decorated to display in stone sculpture and relief the stories of ancient civilizations.

Then the scene changes to the trial of Quasimodo for having kidnapped La Esmeralda. The trial is led by Provost d'Estouteville and the deaf auditor, Master Florian. When the crowd mocks both the auditor and Quasimodo for the coincidence of their deafness, Florian becomes indignant and eventually d'Estouteville sentences Quasimodo to a public beating. Because of his deafness Quasimodo does not sufficiently answer the provost's questions, thus leading the provost to believe that Quasimodo is being disrespectful. This scene demonstrates that the king's men are heartless, and the public is disgusted with their awkward authority.

The story of Pacquette, La Esmeralda's mother, is then told in flashback. Pacquette's mother was forced to raise her in poverty, and when her mother dies, Pacquette becomes pregnant and gives birth to a beautiful girl whom she names Agnes. Later, her child is stolen by the gypsies, and although Pacquette does not know it, they name her La Esmeralda.

The beating of Quasimodo then takes place. He is left on the platform after the beating, and the crowd throws stones at him. Quasimodo sees Frollo in the crowd and believes Frollo will save him. But the priest walks away. When Quasimodo begs for water, La Esmeralda steps forward to help him.

Spring arrives, and readers learn that Captain Phoebus has been matched up with Demoiselle Fleur de Lys, who happens to notice Phoebus's attraction to La Esmeralda. Demoiselle Fleur de Lys suggests that Phoebus invite La Esmeralda to the party they are going to. Once there, La Esmeralda receives too much attention from all the men, and the women become jealous. Frollo, also attracted to La Esmeralda, goes to Gringoire and asks about her. Gringoire tells Frollo that La Esmeralda is in love with Phoebus.

Chapters 31–40

Frollo overhears Phoebus talking about La Esmeralda and convinces Phoebus to let him join him as Phoebus plans to meet her. They enter a house and Phoebus locks Frollo in a closet. Frollo finds a hole in the closet and watches Phoebus and La Esmeralda embrace and kiss. This infuriates Frollo, and he breaks out of the closet, stabs Phoebus, and leaves. La Esmeralda faints. When she awakens, she cradles Phoebus in her arms believing he is dead. La Esmeralda is arrested, put on trial, and tortured for killing him. After her torture, she signs a confession and is sentenced to death. Frollo comes to visit her and tells her he loves her and can save her if she chooses him. He also tells her that Phoebus is dead. La Esmeralda refuses Frollo and says she is ready to die. As she is led outside, she sees Phoebus and faints. Quasimodo steals her away and takes her into the cathedral. There is a law that allows people asylum, or protection from secular law, so long as they take sanctuary in a church, so no one can take her.

Chapters 41–50

Frollo cannot stand to watch the execution of La Esmeralda, so he has not witnessed her rescue. But when he returns to the cathedral and sees the shape of a woman and a goat walking in the shadows of the towers, he thinks he is seeing a ghost. The scene then focuses on Quasimodo and his care of La Esmeralda. Quasimodo brings her clothing and food and tells her of his feelings. La Esmeralda can barely stand to look at him, although she does recognize the warmth of his heart. Later, she sees Phoebus and asks Quasimodo to go and bring him back to her. Quasimodo tries, but Phoebus will not come. La Esmeralda is visibly disappointed, which hurts Quasimodo even further. He knows that Phoebus does not deserve La Esmeralda's love.

Frollo finally realizes La Esmeralda is in the cathedral and seeks her out. He pleads once again for her to love him and forces himself on her. Quasimodo pulls Frollo away and refuses to leave when Frollo commands him. Instead Quasimodo offers Frollo his knife, telling him he will protect La Esmeralda until he dies. Frollo leaves, muttering that no one will have La Esmeralda. Frollo goes to Gringoire, tells him the king's men are planning to take La Esmeralda out of the cathedral in three days, He asks Gringoire to help him rescue La Esmeralda. Gringoire enlists the help of the gypsies. They march toward the cathedral under the cover of night, but Quasimodo spies them. He throws wooden beams, rocks, and molten metal at them. Many are killed but the group persists.

Media Adaptations

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been produced as a movie several times, first in 1923, starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo; then in 1939, starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. In 1977, a British production starred Anthony Hopkins in the same role, and finally the Disney-made version appeared in 1996. There are books on tape, DVDs, and toys and games that use Hugo's original work as their inspiration.

Chapters 51–57

King Louis hears that the citizens are revolting against him. He orders his men to capture and hang them all. He also orders La Esmeralda's immediate execution because he is told she is the reason the people are revolting. The king's men, led by Phoebus, force the gypsies to retreat. Quasimodo thinks he is safe now and turns to look for La Esmeralda, but she is gone. Unbeknownst to Quasimodo, Gringoire and Frollo (in disguise) have taken her away. Gringoire disappears after they take La Esmeralda outside the cathedral. Frollo once again reminds La Esmeralda that her life is in his hands and begs her to love him once again. La Esmeralda again refuses, so Frollo takes her back into the cathedral and locks her in the tower cell with Pacquette (Sister Gudule). As the women talk, they unfold their stories and realize they are mother and daughter. When soldiers come to take La Esmeralda away, her mother hides her. But La Esmeralda hears Phoebus' voice and comes out of her hiding place, still believing he loves her. Instead, Phoebus takes her away. Fighting to save her daughter, Pacquette bites the other officer. He knocks her away, and she hits her head and dies with La Esmeralda watching.

Quasimodo searches for La Esmeralda but only finds Frollo, whom he follows up the tower. Frollo stares out over the city as does Quasimodo and that is when he sees La Esmeralda being hanged. He hears Frollo laugh at her death and lifts Frollo up and throws him over the edge to his death.

Hugo then sums up the lives of the remaining characters. The king dies; Phoebus marries; and Gringoire becomes a famous writer. Quasimodo is later found in the cemetery vault where La Esmeralda was buried. He is recognizable only by the twisted skeleton of his form. His bones are inter-twined in a death embrace with those of a female skeleton.


Jacques Coictier

Coictier is the king's physician who accompanies the king to visit Frollo to ask him about his medical knowledge.

Jacques Coppenole

Coppenole is a hosier who travels with the royal party from Brussels. Although he is a mere maker of hoses, he is announced as if he too were royalty. Coppenole has a way with the crowds in the opening of the novel, giving the reader a contrast between how the populace related to royalty and how royalty related to them, emphasizing the gap between them. Coppenole is the bridge. It is Coppenole who also suggests the election of the pope of fools, which introduces Quasimodo.

Robert d'Estouteville

Robert d'Estouteville is the provost of Paris and presides over the trial of Quasimodo, finally sentencing him to a severe public beating.

Demoiselle Fleur de Lys

Demoiselle Fleur de Lys is the betrothed of Captain Phoebus. When she notices that Phoebus is interest in La Esmeralda's dancing, she suggests that he invite La Esmeralda to the party they are going to. At the party, La Esmeralda becomes the center of attraction with all the men, making all the women jealous.

Master Florian

Florian, the king's auditor, is deaf like Quasimodo. The crowd finds the shared deafness hilarious, which makes Florian indignant. When he demonstrates his annoyance, Provost d'Estouteville blames Quasimodo and sentences him to a beating.

Claude Frollo

Claude Frollo is the priest (later becoming the archdeacon at Notre Dame) who adopts Quasimodo. He starts off a somewhat softhearted individual who not only cares for Quasimodo but also Frollo's orphaned younger brother Jehan. But as time passes Frollo's heart hardens, and his pursuit of knowledge does not completely fulfill him. He is somewhat an outcast himself, having spent most of his youth studying. His adoption of Quasimodo draws him further away from other people, who think Quasimodo is related to the devil.

Frollo finds himself distracted by his lust for La Esmeralda. He has Quasimodo kidnap La Esmeralda in a desperate attempt to conquer her. Then he demonstrates his lack of morals when he allows the authorities to punish Quasimodo for the crime that Frollo technically perpetrated. When Frollo realizes that no matter what he does, he cannot possess La Esmeralda because the only man she wants is Phoebus, Frollo stabs Phoebus and allows, once again, someone else to be punished for his crime; this time it is La Esmeralda who must suffer. After Quasimodo helps La Esmeralda escape from being hanged, Frollo employs Gringoire to help him take La Esmeralda away from Quasimodo's protection. Frollo then turns La Esmeralda over to the king's authorities and laughs when La Esmeralda is hanged. This outrages Quasimodo, who then throws Frollo out of the tower. The character of Frollo is the most complex, filled with contradictions. He raises orphans but allows others to be punished for his crimes. He is a priest, who should be committed to purity and devotion, but he lusts after La Esmeralda and is the cause of her death.

Jehan Frollo

Jehan is the younger brother of Claude Frollo. Upon their parents' deaths, Claude takes upon himself the raising of his younger orphaned brother, hoping that Jehan will become scholarly. Jehan does not, thus disappointing his brother. Jehan lives with the gypsies and constantly begs for money from his brother. However, his brother's caring for Jehan represents the softer side of Claude.

Pierre Gringoire

Gringoire is a poet and dramatist, who was orphaned and later educated by Claude Frollo. It is with Gringoire's play that Hugo opens his story. Gringoire is not a successful playwright by any means. His play is scarcely even listened to. He wanders the streets in search of food and a place to sleep and ends up in a sanctuary of gypsies, who threaten to kill him unless one of the females agrees to marry him. La Esmeralda comes to Gringoire's rescue but after the marriage ceremony is performed lets Gringoire know that their relationship will never amount to more than that of brother and sister.

Sister Gudule

See Paquette La Chantfleurie

Pacquette La Chantfleurie

Pacquette, as a young mother, has her baby stolen from her. In her baby's place, she is given Quasimodo, whom she abandons in the church. Pacquette's baby was stolen from her by a band of gypsies, and she finds out toward the end of the novel that her baby is none other than La Esmeralda. Pacquette's sorrow drives her crazy, and she is locked up in Rolande's Tower where she takes the name Sister Gudule. Later, Frollo locks La Esmeralda in the same cell in Rolande's Tower with Pacquette. While they share the cell, Pacquette and La Esmeralda discover they are mother and daughter. When the soldiers come to take La Esmeralda away, Pacquette fights to keep her daughter with her. In the process, one of the soldiers knocks her away, killing her.

La Esmeralda

La Esmeralda is the physical antithesis of Quasimodo. She is so beautiful crowds form around her just so they can see her walk by. Despite this physical disparity, La Esmeralda and Quasimodo have much in common. They are both outcasts (Quasimodo because of his physical infirmities and La Esmeralda because of her lack of proper standing in the community) and they both have pure hearts. They are also individuals who reach out to others in time of need. Both are depicted as innocents, people who are filled with complete trust, often even blinded by it.

La Esmeralda, like Quasimodo, knows little of her parentage. She was stolen by Egyptian gypsies when she was a baby. But unlike Quasimodo, La Esmeralda, as she matures into full womanhood, loves to be around people. People respond to her in positive ways. Because of her beauty, men cannot help but want her for their own. Gringoire falls in love with her for her beauty. Frollo and Phoebus lust after her. And Quasimodo falls in love with for her generous heart. But La Esmeralda wants only Phoebus. She thinks only he can give her the love that she craves. After Frollo stabs Phoebus, La Esmeralda is left with his body. When the king's authorities arrive, she is accused of the crime and sentenced to death. Quasimodo saves her by stealing her away, but Frollo eventually turns her in. She is hanged for the crime. La Esmeralda affects many of the characters in this novel, but her character is not well developed. She enters the story and leaves it unchanged—beautiful and innocent.

King Louis XI

King Louis, the reigning monarch, visits Frollo to find out how much he knows about medicine. After interviewing him, the king is satisfied that Frollo knows what he is talking about and decides to study under him.

Captain Phoebus

Phoebus is the captain of the king's army, a handsome man who seduces women, including La Esmeralda. In a desperate act of jealousy, Frollo stabs Phoebus, leaving La Esmeralda with the bleeding body and allowing La Esmeralda to be charged with the crime. Unknown to La Esmeralda, Phoebus does not die but actually heals from his wounds and is later responsible for arresting a band of gypsies, which includes La Esmeralda.


Quasimodo is the hunchback, a man so disfigured that many people believe he is no less than the devil. He is abandoned in the church by his mother who cannot confront his ugliness and is taken under the care of Claude Frollo, one of the priests. To keep him busy, Quasimodo (whose name is given him because he is left in the church on Quasimodogeniti Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter), is given the task of ringing the bells of Notre Dame, a task that eventually causes him to go deaf.

Quasimodo is totally devoted to Frollo, the only person who befriends him. Therefore when Frollo asks him to kidnap La Esmeralda, Quasimodo does so without hesitation. He later suffers the punishment for this crime, surprised and totally dejected that Frollo does not come to his aid. When La Esmeralda shows affection toward him, Quasimodo falls madly in love with her and proves that he will do anything for her by saving her from a death sentence for a crime she has not committed. Then he takes her into the cathedral and shelters her. At one point Quasimodo must choose between his first love, Frollo, and his love for La Esmeralda when Frollo attempts to rape her. Quasimodo turns against his first master and saves the woman he loves. In the end, however, Quasimodo is incapable of protecting her. When he realizes that Frollo is the cause of her death, he throws Frollo from one of the cathedral towers. Quasimodo then realizes that the only two people he ever loved are dead, and he dies in the vault of Mountfaucon, holding onto the dead body of La Esmeralda. Quasimodo is the so-called beast in this story but only on a physical level. His beauty lies within, in his love and in his loyalty.

Compère Tourangeau

See King Louis XI

Clopin Trouillefou

Clopin appears in the opening scene of the novel as a beggar who climbs one of the pillars and cries out for alms. He fakes infirmities in order to attract more charity. Later, readers learn that Trouillefou is the leader of the band of gypsies of which La Esmeralda is a member. He calls himself the King of Thunes. Trouillefou in his capacity as leader threatens to kill Gringoire, stating that he can only be saved if a female gypsy agrees to marry him. La Esmeralda accepts the bid.



The theme of abandonment plays out in different ways in Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The most obvious is the abandonment of Quasimodo by his mother, who steals the more beautiful child, La Esmeralda, and exchanges her malformed son, who is left in the halls of the cathedral. And that is just the beginning of abandonment in Quasimodo's life. The public abandons him in many ways, mocking and jeering him every time he appears outside his cloistered shelter. In more subtle ways, some of his physical senses also abandon him, leaving him without the power to hear or speak, pushing him deeper into isolation.

The priest Frollo and his brother Jehan are also abandoned by the death of their parents; as is Gringoire, another orphan in this story. On another level, all the poor of Paris are portrayed as having also been abandoned by the fabulously rich monarchy which has grown out of touch with not only the needs of the poverty stricken populous but with its subjects' humanity. This theme of abandonment makes the loyalty of Quasimodo and La Esmeralda all the more intense by contrast.

Physical Appearance

The theme of the power of physical appearance in affecting others is played out at its fullest in the characters of Quasimodo and La Esmeralda. Quasimodo is scorned, mocked, abandoned, ridiculed, and beaten for having been born in a twisted body. Whereas La Esmeralda is loved, lusted after, praised, and celebrated for her innate beauty. It is, however, interesting to note that neither Quasimodo's ugliness nor La Esmeralda's beauty grants a better outcome. Although Quasimodo must seek refuge in isolation because of his physical appearance, La Esmeralda suffers from the jealousy of others when she exhibits herself in public.

Disguise of one's physical appearance is also used throughout Hugo's story. Frollo often tries to disguise himself either in a common cloak or in the clothing of his priesthood. His cloak is used to give him an advantage in getting closer to La Esmeralda, who has resolved to resist him. But his priestly habit, if one takes the highest ideals of spirituality that his religious outfit represents, also disguises Frollo's carnal lust.


There are many men who want to be close to La Esmeralda. Each man has his own reasons. Of all of them, Quasimodo and Frollo have the strongest desires, and those desires are born from opposite feelings. Quasimodo is sincerely in love with La Esmeralda. He demonstrates this by his ability to satisfy her needs without receiving anything in return. He wants to be able to look at her, but he turns his head so she will not have to see his ugliness. He serves her and then leaves her alone. He protects her although he knows that she does not love him.

By contrast, Frollo is obsessed with La Esmeralda. Or more precisely, he is obsessed with the thought of her. He really does not know her. He is merely aroused by her beauty, by her female form, how she moves, how she laughs, and as a result he wants to own her. His obsession drives him away from his own rational thoughts and his vows of spirituality. His lofty ideals are corrupted by his carnal desires, and he will do anything, even break his God's commandments, to possess her. His obsession controls his body and his mind, pointing him in the direction of the darkest evil rather than toward the spiritual light. He, who is dressed in the garb of the priest, Hugo seems to be saying, is really the devil. While Quasimodo, who has been accused of being the devil because of his physical garb, is more like a saint.


Intolerance abounds in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The most obvious is the intolerance that surrounds Quasimodo. From his birth to his death, people cannot bear to look at him let alone to be around him without mocking him. Even when he is in a court of law, the judge is so prejudiced by Quasimodo's looks, he has no tolerance of Quasimodo's inability to hear and therefore to express himself. The judge mistakenly believes that Quasimodo is acting disrespectfully instead of realizing that Quasimodo's communication skills are limited.

The king also demonstrates intolerance when he hears there is an uprising among his people. He, as well as the people who report to him, believe that the uprising is against the king. Rather than attempting to find out why the people are revolting, the king, almost like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, in essence shouts out, Off with their heads. There is also the general intolerance against the gypsies who are accused of every crime from theft to sorcery, whether or not they have committed them.


Quasimodo portrays the most sincere form of loyalty and is therefore the most sympathetic character to experience betrayal. Since Frollo is the only person who shows any signs of affection toward him, Quasimodo would do anything for his master. Frollo asks him to kidnap La Esmeralda, and Quasimodo does so, neither understanding the motives nor the consequences. But when Quasimodo is tried and convicted of a crime whose penalty is a severe beating, he does comprehend that he does not deserve that punishment. He is not the perpetrator of that crime, since he has only followed the dictates of his beloved Frollo. But Frollo's loyalty is nowhere near as exemplary as Quasimodo's, and although he sees his adopted child suffering unjustly, Frollo does not come to Quasimodo's defense.

Topics For Further Study

  • Write a research paper on the construction of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Include descriptions of the architectural designs and how they changed, as well as the effects on the cathedral of the wars that raged around it and the influences of the monarchies. Conclude with the status of the cathedral in the early 2000s.
  • Gypsies, or the Roma people, have been persecuted throughout their history. Write a paper about their struggles to exist in Europe, including a description of their background, culture, lifestyle, and music. Since there are various groups of the Roma, chose one particular section, such as the people who live in Hungary, as your focused topic.
  • Hugo was very much involved in politics. What political causes did he pursued? How did he engage in them in the political arena? What did he have to say about them in his writings, both in fiction and in nonfiction?
  • Hugo's play Hernani, ou l'Honneur Castillan was first produced in 1830 and is said to have dramatized the conflict between French classical authors and romantic ones. Read the play, then explain how these two literary philosophies are demonstrated in the play.

Moreover, it is Frollo again, who exhibits another lethal form of betrayal in another circumstance, this time with La Esmeralda, when he stabs Phoebus and allows La Esmeralda to pay with her life for this crime. Phoebus, too, is guilty of betrayal when he pretends to love La Esmeralda only to win a few hours of physical passion. He watches as La Esmeralda is about to be hanged for a crime that he knows she did not commit. La Esmeralda, herself, or rather her blind love of Phoebus, betrays her own safety when she comes out of hiding upon hearing Phoebus' voice. Believing Phoebus loves her, she in essence turns herself in to those who want to see her dead.


Gothic Novel

Typically, a gothic novel includes a dark setting preferably in an old castle; tension created through suspense; the appearance of mysterious signs that act as warnings or prophecy; the stirring of strong emotions; and of course a threatened woman in need of rescue. Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame contains all of these elements and more. First there is the gothic cathedral of Notre Dame with its castle-like structure and embellishments of gargoyles, dark shadowy staircases, towers, and hidden rooms. This setting emphasizes mystery and foreboding. Then there is the constant flow of emotions, including despair, brief happiness, surprise, shock, disappointment, and fear. Finally there is La Esmeralda, the beautiful woman in distress.

Hugo also includes elements of the irrational, such as sorcery, black magic, alchemy, obsession, and devilry. He even adds a bit of prophecy or omen when he has Frollo write the word ANAГKH on the wall of his room. The word means fate and reflects both the gripping effects from which the characters appear unable to free themselves as well as the derivative form of the word, which is fatality, thus making the word a prophecy of the short time remaining for Hugo's main characters. As in other gothic novels, mystery abounds in Hugo's novel, too, from the unknown parentages of many of the characters to the motivation of Frollo who seems bent on fouling the lives of Quasimodo and La Esmeralda. The overwhelming power of the male is also present, another gothic ingredient. From the king, who has the power to execute anyone who disagrees with his thoughts, to Phoebus, who takes what pleasure he can find in women without caring about them in return, to Frollo, who exerts his power over both Quasimodo and La Esmeralda.


If one were to sum up the overall theme of Hugo's novel, it would be easy to refer to it as a melodramatic tragedy. A tragedy is a work that shows a conflict between an individual and a higher force that ends badly for the individual. There is the tragic form of Quasimodo that makes his life a living hell. There is the tragic figure of La Esmeralda, whose beauty should have given her easy access to a life of love but instead gives her nothing but disappointment and suffering. In Frollo, readers witness a tragic flaw—his inability to control his lust—which eventually destroys his life. The tragedy of poverty is also provided in regard to the masses of people going hungry while grand feasts and opulence of every kind are enjoyed inside the monarch's hall. And then there is Pacquette, who is driven mad after the theft of her beautiful baby girl, only to be reunited with her in the last moments of both of their lives. The book ends with misguided, bloody battles, murders, and executions, and the most tragic image of all—that of Quasimodo's skeletal remains wrapped around his dead beloved.

Privileging the Outcast

Quasimodo reflects the romantic tendency to privilege the outcast (the ugly, powerless, common) while discounting the heads of hierarchy. In a sense, Quasimodo is something of the "noble savage," one who exhibits higher virtue and greater compassion than the so-called leaders of the society, a figure that appears repeatedly in nineteenth-century romantic literature.

Complexity and Elaboration

Hugo's style is filled with very long, highly descriptive passages. For instance, he might, in the midst of describing a scene, point out the curvatures of scroll-topped columns in the architecture of the room in which the scene is being played out. He also provides long digressions about the history of a building or a place. Extended flashbacks present backgrounds for some characters, and some chapters are devoted to his personal philosophies, such as the discussion on the potential effect of the printing presses. He describes the cathedral of Notre Dame in fine detail, as well as the buildings in the surrounding area and the view of the city from one of the cathedral's towers. Modern readers may be impatient with this elaborate style, accustomed as they are to quick camera shots in movies and the scaled down writing of popular twentieth-century and early 2000s narrative styles. But it is through Hugo's extensive details that readers are given a deeper understanding of the life and times of fifteenth-century Paris. His attention to detail provides a lot of information beyond the plot of the novel, particularly regarding the setting, background, and fifteenth-century topics.

Historical Context

King Louis XI

Louis XI (1423–83) was king (he was crowned in 1461) during the time of Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. His reign was characterized by diminished prestige of the courts, intervention in the affairs of the church, and imposition of heavy taxes to support a powerful army. Louis XI tended to turn away from nobility, preferring the common man in his ranks. The nobility, in turn, tried several times to dethrone him. But the lesser gentry and the bourgeois classes, with whom Louis had won favor, refused to revolt against him. His reign, however, was filled with battles for land and power. He had many political enemies, many of whom were imprisoned in very poor conditions for long periods. In the latter years of his reign, Louis feared for his life. He sensed he might be assassinated. For this reason, during the last two years of his monarchy, Louis hid, in selfexile, in Touraine. He died in 1483 of cerebral arteriosclerosis. He was succeeded by his son, Charles VIII.

Cathedral of Notre Dame

Construction on the cathedral of Notre Dame was at least in the planning stages in 1160, when Maurice du Sully envisioned its design. The cornerstone was laid three years later. The original design was Romanesque. But the cathedral was built in three stages, and before it was completed, advances in architectural design allowed more freedom in how weight in large buildings could be supported and walls opened in to let in light. As construction continued, the cathedral design was increasing affected by the new gothic style. This style can be seen in the ribbed vaults (arched ribs that support the nave ceiling) and flying buttresses (arched supports built outside the nave walls that direct the weight of the roof outward along the ribs and down the buttresses outside the church, thus relieving the foundation of weight and making possible a higher vault in the nave). Because the weight was channeled this way, the wall space between the buttresses could be opened up with stained glass windows. The gothic cathedral also had ornate spires and ornate exterior sculpture. On the roof top, sculpted gargoyles symbolically were intended to scare away devils but practically functioned as downspouts. The gothic style was magnificent, and under the financial support of King Louis VII, the cathedral located on an island in the Seine River, rose in grandeur, the pride of Paris. The church was completed between 1250 and 1300 but went through major reconstructions thereafter. Over the years, the cathedral was the site of many coronations and royal weddings.

During the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV (late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) some of the cathedral's tombs and stained glass windows were destroyed. At the end of the eighteenth century, revolutionaries plundered many of its valuables. Gradually the great building deteriorated, but major restoration programs in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries restored it.


The term gypsy was applied to a group of nomadic people, more properly known as Roma, who were believed, according to linguistic research, to have their origins in northwest India. There are historical records that indicate that the Roma lived in Arabic, Byzantine, and Persian countries as well as all over Europe. They first appeared in Europe in the 1400s. Wherever they went, they were considered outsiders and were often persecuted. Some countries enslaved them; others used them for entertainment, music and dancing being two of their gifts. Harsh laws against them often deterred their travels. In 1502, King Louis XII banished all gypsies from France. Even more severe, in Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) actually signed a law that stated gypsies could be hanged just for being gypsies. During the Nazi control of Germany, large groups of Roma were tortured and killed along with the Jewish population. Although people of Roma descent can be found all around the world, the largest populations of Roma are found in Russia and in Hungary.

Napoleon III

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808–1873) reigned during Hugo's life, and after returning from exile after the French Revolution of 1848, Napoleon III won the presidency and served as leader of the Second Republic. Then in 1851, he overthrew the Second Republic and gave himself dictatorial powers. A year later, he named himself ruler of France's Second Empire. He ruled France with a tight fist but also invested a lot of money in rebuilding the country. He was responsible for building railroads and authorizing the first banks. His strict rule led to his unpopularity among his citizens, so he attempted to liberalize his government, giving his general assembly broader powers. This measure did not, however, save him. His downfall resulted from his ambitions to be a great military leader, like his uncle, Napoleon I. In 1870, after taking to the battlefield during the Franco-Prussian war, he was captured by the Prussians and declared by his citizens at home to be dethroned by the then-authoritative powers of the Third Republic in Paris. Napoleon III died in exile in 1873 in Great Britain where he was buried.

Critical Overview

According to his biographer, Graham Robb, in his award-winning book Victor Hugo, "by the time he fled the country in 1851, Hugo was the most famous living writer in the world … His influence on French literature was second only to that of the Bible." Although Hugo's life's work included "seven novels, eighteen volumes of poetry, twenty-one plays," and as Robb writes, "approximately three million words of history, criticism, travel writing and philosophy," Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame retains the honor of being one of his two most famous works. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was very popular in France when it first came out despite the fact, as Robb states it, "the immediate effect on readers of the time was horror verging on intense pleasure." The book shocked Hugo's readers with its "extreme states," Robb concludes, which included those of poverty and ugliness as well as the evils of power and the consequences of extreme debauchery. Ironically, it was also these extreme states that made the book so popular. This popularity spread across Europe and the United States and soon tourists were flocking to Paris to visit the sites depicted in Hugo's novel. Many were disappointed at first, writes Robb, with the sad state of the old cathedral, which was in need of a major renovation. But when the literary tourists were shown the word ANAҐKH carved into the wall, some of their disappointment was allayed. They began to look at the cathedral as Hugo presents it in his novel.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1400s: France's civil war, referred to as the Hundred Years' War, begins in 1407.
    1800s: Napoleon I, after victorious battles across Europe, establishing a vast French Empire, is defeated at Waterloo.
    2000s: President Jacques Chirac refuses to join the coalition in support of the U.S. pre-emptive military strike on Iraq.
  • 1400s: Anti-gypsy laws are enforced throughout most of Europe, making it a crime for the Roma people to live in such countries as Britain, Holland, and Germany. Spain tries gypsies as heretics.
    1800s: Gypsies come to the United States to flee European discrimination, but many are turned back at Ellis Island.
    2000s: Norway's largest religious group, the Lutherans, officially apologizes for its role in past discrimination against the gypsies.
  • 1400s: The influence of Italian Renaissance art is imposed on French gothic architecture after Charles VIII returns from his conquest of Naples.
    1800s: While King Louis XV (who is crowned when he is only five years old) matures, Phillipe d'Orleans supervises the French government and influences art and architecture in France with an emphasis on individualism.
    2000s: Many modern French architects vow to renew Paris and its urban setting with buildings that break out of the box form and incorporate triangle shapes or a fragmented layout.

A century and a half after its publication, The Hunchback of Notre Dame retained its popular appeal, and, although not claimed as Hugo's best novel (Les Miserables usually claimed that prize), it was praised for Hugo's detailed account and

description of the cathedral as well as a glimpse into fifteenth-century France culture. The novel was deeply embedded in twentieth-century French culture, and the popularity of the novel, no doubt, played a significant part in influencing the French government to finance a restoration of the cathedral. Its effect could also be seen in the many interpretations that movie producers give it about every thirty years. Popular all over the world, Hugo is especially revered in France. As his biographer, Laurence M. Porter, in his book Victor Hugo, explains, Hugo's writing has sometimes been referred to as simplistic because of his "dualistic rhetoric of light versus darkness," which implies an uncomplicated and noncomplex view of life. Although the characters in Hugo's novel may seem simplistic, Porter writes, closer study of his novels show that "[Hugo] repeatedly implies a cosmic vision deeper than the limited visions of his characters. Hugo finds a hidden God revealed not through the rites of a church but through nature and the human heart."


Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English and creative writing and is the author of several books. In this essay, Hart explores the role of La Esmeralda and the force she portrays in uniting the characters and moving the story forward.

There has been much discussion about the protagonist of Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and many believe that Quasimodo is the protagonist. After all, the title of the novel specifically refers to him. But other critics believe that the true focus is the cathedral of Notre Dame, pointing to the French title of this work, which is Notre-Dame de Paris. Whether Quasimodo or the cathedral is argued to be the protagonist or focus, it is quite clear that the ultimate motivating force in the plot is La Esmeralda. She is the spark that sets this story in motion and continually inspires the other characters to act out their roles.

The novel begins with a lot of commotion. The city is in the throes of a large celebration. There are parades and visiting dignitaries. There are parties and plays. But the action is scattered and constantly interrupted until one defining moment, when La Esmeralda makes her first appearance. Suddenly everyone's attention is focused as people run to the streets or to the windows and doorways of buildings calling out her name as she passes by. Her beauty and innocence draw their attention: the women wish they could be her and the men desire her touch.

As she moves through the streets, she draws the story forward. Gringoire, the poet and playwright, follows her, taking readers along with him. Gringoire is driven to find out who this beautiful woman is and why she demands so much attention, pulling his audience away as they have more interest in her than in Gringoire's play. Gringoire soon becomes obsessed with this woman, whose magic turns out to be more than just her beauty. She also has the gift of music and dance, and she seems to have mesmerized a goat just as she has captivated those who watch her. Gringoire is the first to be struck and motivated by La Esmeralda. He tries to save her from the hunchback who attempts to kidnap her, and thus Hugo, through this gypsy beauty, pulls his readers into the next phase of the story.

Gringoire is later saved by La Esmeralda. She marries him, and it is through this marriage and her subsequent demand that her relationship with Gringoire remain platonic, that she neutralizes Gringoire. He becomes a shadow in the story, flitting in and out of the background, not to fully reappear until the end, when he becomes unknowingly a catalyst for La Esmeralda's death. The story continues without him, as it now focuses on Quasimodo who attempts to kidnap La Esmeralda. Quasimodo does not fully comprehend why he has been asked to do so, nor does he completely understand the consequences when he is caught. Quasimodo is the blind follower of his master's will. Frollo is, after all, the first person Quasimodo learns to love. But once Quasimodo sets his eyes on the beautiful La Esmeralda, and once he witnesses her gentle spirit (offset by Frollo's betrayal), when La Esmeralda offers Quasimodo water, he, like all others, has trouble taking his eyes off her. But Quasimodo, who has suffered much rebuke because of his physical appearance, sees much deeper than La Esmeralda's surface beauty. He sees that she alone has looked at him (despite her repulsion of him) not solely as a beast but as a person who has physical needs. And it is through her gift of water that the story takes another turn. Up till now, Quasimodo has done as he has been told to do. But from now on, because of La Esmeralda's innocent heart, Quasimodo discovers thoughts and feelings all his own. He learns to act instead of to react. He will do what he concludes must be done. He will fight to the death to save his queen. In contrast to what La Esmeralda has done to Gringoire, quieting him and sending him to the back of the stage, she has brought Quasimodo to life. He, who has lived in seclusion, in silence, in the darkness and shadow of near nonexistence, has been pushed forward into the light through the power of La Esmeralda.

But the story has not yet progressed that far. Hugo has yet to fully expose the complete contradiction in Frollo caused by La Esmeralda. Frollo has existed on the food of thought. Frollo has not only committed his life to the intellect, he has surrendered his soul to the church. He has sworn to remain celibate as his religious vows dictate. His mind, throughout his adult life, has been focused on books and the care of two orphaned children. He is sought after as a master of reasoning and understanding. His knowledge far exceeds the dogma of his church; he studies medicine and science and alchemy. And yet, beneath the mantle of intellect is Frollo's Achilles heel, his mortal character flaw. Frollo melts at the sight of La Esmeralda. He not only is affected by her beauty, his passions for her controls his behavior. La Esmeralda has turned this great angel of intellect into a devil of lust. Because of his need of her, Frollo will abuse Quasimodo and will attempt to assassinate his rival Phoebus. He will lie, cheat, and scheme. In other words, because of La Esmeralda, Frollo is, along with the story, transformed.

It should be pointed out that La Esmeralda is powerful in spite of herself. Although her god-given beauty incites the characters of this novel and moves the story along, La Esmeralda herself lacks personal power. Or maybe this should be stated in another way. La Esmeralda has her own Achilles heel, her own point of weakness. She desires a perfect love. And her definition of perfect love comes to her in the form of Phoebus, a vain, shallow soldier, whose own beauty inflates his ego and overshadows his heart. Whether it is the handsomeness of this king's archer that captivates La Esmeralda or it is his rank, the young gypsy woman cannot see beyond what she thinks he is to the real dangers that he presents. He is the one she wants no matter how heartlessly he treats her. Thus La Esmeralda is blinded. But even in her weakest state, even in spite of herself, La Esmeralda exerts power. As ruthless as Phoebus is, how can he not be affected by the innocent La Esmeralda. He has no doubt wronged many women in his lifetime, but who among even the most cynical of men could watch the hanging of this woman, knowing that his voice of truth could save her life and not be affected by her innocence? Hugo writes that after La Esmeralda's death, Phoebus marries, but Hugo leaves undetermined the idea that the young couple lived happily ever after. There is another option available, one more plausible, one that rings more true. Phoebus, in his inability to speak out and save La Esmeralda, is a marked man. Let there be no doubt of the psychological consequences of his missed actions. Although Phoebus may witness and maybe even cause, many deaths in his lifetime, La Esmeralda's will be the one that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

In the dramatic conclusion of this story, it is not through Frollo, in his vow to either have La Esmeralda or to destroy her, that the final turn in the story takes place. It is not really Phoebus, in his role of king's deputy, whose order it is to find La Esmeralda and bring her to the hangman's rope, who moves the novel to its final resting place. Even Quasimodo, in his deep love to save La Esmeralda, is helpless to shift the story from one path to another. And what about Gringoire? He does reappear, and he is instrumental in helping to bring the story to a conclusion, but his actions do not define the final swing. Rather, as in all other parts of the story, in all the other transitions, it is La Esmeralda who casts the final dice in determining how the story concludes. Whether one wants to portray La Esmeralda in the light of power or in the consequence of her weakness, it is for her unselfish love of Phoebus, her blind desire for a perfect love that this story takes its last turn. She has found her mother at last, and her mother, in the last few breaths of her life is determined to save her daughter—this child who was stolen from her and for whom the mother has grieved all of her life. The mother hides La Esmeralda, but La Esmeralda cannot hide from her lover. She cannot protect herself from the wrath of this man. She is willing to give him one more chance. She believes that his love of her is much greater than the love of her mother. La Esmeralda will offer herself to Phoebus, believing that he alone can save her. But she is mortally wrong.

And so the story takes its final turn. La Esmeralda has led the story along its path, turning and twisting its fate, persuading and evading its characters, challenging and tempting its motives from beginning to end. And in that end, she once again has a profound effect, not just on the storyline and the fictitious people who play out their created roles. This time, if in no other portion of the novel, La Esmeralda uses her power to affect readers. Even in death, after the flesh of her beauty has been eaten away, after her pure heart has shriveled out of sight and all that remains is her skeleton, La Esmeralda leaves her readers with a disturbing image that will revisit them and possibly drive them to visit Paris in irrational hopes of catching a glimpse of the dancing gypsy. Hugo gives La Esmeralda the last moment, demonstrating the power of this female character, who may not be the protagonist but without her the story would lack the energy to propel itself to the end. Who would not be moved by the final sight of Quasimodo's skeleton embracing his only true love, the giver of strength and inspiration of change? Of course, it is La Esmeralda.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Elizabeth McCracken

In the following introduction, McCracken discusses the strengths of the novel as great literature.

For a moment, let us forget Quasimodo.

You know him already, of course. He is one of the most famous fictional characters of all time, a creation so indelibly described that—even if you have never seen an illustration, on paper or canvas or celluloid—you would recognize him walking down the street. Like Hugo, I "shall not attempt to give the reader any idea of that tetrahedron nose, of that horseshoe mouth, of that little left eye, obscured by a bristly red eyebrow, while the right was completely overwhelmed and buried by an enormous wart; of those irregular teeth, jagged here and there like the battlements of a fortress; of that horny lip, over which one of those teeth protruded …" The bell ringer of NotreDame requires no introduction at all.

I mean to introduce the entire book, which is a great work of literature. Those words once suggested a book you had to read; now they suggest one you needn't bother with, because so many generations have done it for you. Surely by now the plot of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (or Robinson Crusoe, or A Tale of Two Cities) is encoded in our DNA, a kind of evolutionary Cliff's Note.

The fact is, most novels, great and bad, are best read in a state of near ignorance. You are always more easily and pleasantly seduced—even by a brilliant seducer—without the voice of your mother or your eighth-grade English teacher in your ear. Perhaps the only proper introduction for a Great Novel is: Reader, here is your book. Book, here is your reader—

What Do I Read Next?

  • Some critics believe that Hugo's Les Miserables (1862) outshines The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The book exposes the struggles of the underclass in France. It is interesting to note that the year this book was published, Hugo began financing a weekly dinner for fifty poor children, reflecting the sentiments he expresses in this story.
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) focuses on a hideous-looking monster with fine feelings. The book is an example of the gothic horror novel.
  • Charles Dickens, a contemporary of Hugo, wrote Oliver Twist (1837), a novel that portrays the hardships of the poor in London. A poor orphaned boy escapes from his cruel master only to find life even more difficult on the streets.
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), one of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic works, features a well-mannered gentleman who struggles against his anti-social desires in this novel of two opposing forces fighting for the soul of one man.

—except we often know just enough about great novels to dissuade us from reading them. In the case of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, I blame Quasimodo. Not the one who lives between the covers of the book but the one who haunts the world at large, the sweet Beast who falls in love with the unattainable Beauty, that whiff of melodrama about him, the human heart awoken by love. Actors want to play him, in movies and musicals. They've made him into a g——d——Disney character, in a cartoon whose moral is that good triumphs, evil fails, and people will accept you for your essential niceness even if your face is, well, a little lopsided.

This book, this great book, is not nice. It is merciless. It is full of poetry and ideas, tragedy and moments of laugh-out-loud comedy. The Hunch-back of Notre-Dame is a Gothic cathedral of a novel, as endlessly beautiful, instructive, tragic, and brilliantly formed, as darkly funny, diverting, and entertaining. It's as interested in small things as grand, as crammed with detail, and as rigorously organized: broad-shouldered, full of gargoyletopped alcoves and saint-filled niches you can find your way back to without much trouble, if you have paid attention.

And Quasimodo is only one of these treasures. He isn't even the true eponymous hero of Victor Hugo's novel, which was called by its author Notre-Dame de Paris. The English title, which Hugo hated, narrows the book down to one character and one building. In fact, this is a book full of heroes and monsters, saints and gargoyles, and saints-turned-gargoyles. For quite a while, the book seems to be a wandering mass of characters, though slowly we meet the essential players: Pierre Gringoire, luckless poet, who leads us through Paris and to Esmeralda, who saves him from being ordered hanged by the King of the Tramps at the Cour des Miracles; Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre-Dame, who took in the foundling Quasimodo; Frollo's dissolute younger brother, Jehan; Esmeralda's exquisite goat, Djali; and the mysterious and wrenching recluse Sister Gudule ("Sack Woman"), formerly known as Paquette la Chantefleurie, who has shut herself in the Rat Hole, a basement cell with no door that has been expressly designed for women "who should wish to bury themselves alive, on account of some great calamity or some extraordinary penance." She has cast herself out of society, which makes her somehow more monstrous than even Quasimodo.

There is, of course, no actual aimlessness—you cannot discern the architecture of a cathedral by examining the carving on one doorjamb, exquisite though it might be. Slowly, as you read along, you see the brilliant organization. The structure is one of the true pleasures of the novel. Notre-Dame de Paris is broken into eleven books, which are in turn broken into smaller titled chapters. Some titles are charming and comic—for instance, "The Danger of Trusting a Goat with a Secret"—and others named for characters or locations whose natures are described therein. Some cover essential plot points and some are more digressive, some are a single page, and some thirty pages long, but each is beautifully shaped and satisfying. Your tour guide will lead you up a circular stone staircase, or into the rose-window-lit apse; he will point out the smallest cautionary serpent carved into a threshold stone. Serpent, stained glass, the iron bars over a window: no one can say exactly what architectural detail holds a cathedral up, what makes it a cathedral and not a warehouse. Not just size, not just decoration; not merely those spaces that remind us of God because they leave us awestruck, nor those that are homely and holy. Every detail is essential, though they seem too numerous to absorb.

Which is, after all, why you need a tour guide. Hugo's narrator is funny and mocking and mordant, and one of the first things that is lost in movie adaptations. That's the problem with filmed versions of books: they take out the poetry and replace it with recorded music. Here on every page is Hugo's brilliance with metaphor (Quasimodo looks like "a giant who had been broken in pieces and badly soldered together again"); his attention to his characters' physicality, whether Clopin Trouillefou, King of the Tramps, or Louis XI, King of France; his ability to be simultaneously chilling and laugh-provoking with the merest twist of tone, to educate and to mock—I don't even know how to begin to catalog all he accomplishes in one paragraph composed of a single sentence in a chapter discussing the former public gallows at La Place de Grève, which ends explaining that in civilized nineteenth-century Paris, there is "but one miserable, furtive, timid, shamefaced guillotine, which always seems as if fearful of being taken in the act, so speedily does it hurry away after striking the fatal blow."

It is a wicked, compassionate, enticing voice.

When you have finished reading the novel, you can go back. I always do. I love to revisit the third book, which is composed of the chapters "Notre-Dame" and "A Bird's-eye View of Paris." No human characters appear in Book III; no dialogue is spoken; the plot is not, it seems, advanced a pace. Mostly the narrator laments urban renewal, renovation, man's need to tear down the old and replace it, the "thousand various barbarisms" visited upon Notre-Dame, the fact that Paris is "deformed day by day." The narrator's voice is sometimes didactic, sometimes satirical—there's a long and hilarious riff on buildings in Hugo's own nineteenth-century Paris. He jumps over steeples and centuries, and sometimes he seems to do so only because he can.

But something happens at the end of "A Bird's-eye View of Paris." The voice turns seductively imperative. He instructs the reader, the very dear reader, to "build up and put together again in imagination the Paris of the fifteenth century," and then, step by step, the voice tells you how. It shows what a narrator like this can do: all those imperative verbs are like a great pianist taking your hands in his, and placing your fingers on the keys, and—look! what extraordinary music you can make: you almost believe that you've done it yourself, dear reader, most beloved reader. In a book full of sadness and sudden death and good, futile human works and cruelty and fear and disappointment, all those reliable jerkers of tears, it is the end of the bird's-eye view—accompanied by the bird's-tongue song of church bells (written long before bird's-eye views were as cheap and easy to obtain as footage shot from a plane)—that reliably makes me cry, for its beauty, and its brilliance, and the loss of that world, and then again for its beauty.

Small wonder Hollywood's so fond of this book; for those of us born since the dawn of cinema, it's hard to not think, from time to time, What a movie this would make! We'd recognize single-handedly staving off the Tramps who are attempting to storm the cathedral: that is what the hero of an action movie always does. We instinctively hear dramatic music as Claude Frollo hangs from the edge of the cathedral, begging his adopted son for rescue.

But, of course, this is not cinema: this is genius. It's the kind of peculiar mobile imagination that is rare enough throughout history and may now be rendered impossible, now that we have seen how plausibly (though imperfectly) cameras can mimic it. Can a post-1900 intellect think without being informed by camera angles? Hugo's eye and sensibility went everywhere. He saw things from Quasimodo's monocular point of view, and through the Recluse's barred windows; he could think like the frivolous and yet endearing Gringoire; he could think like an educated goat; he could be sympathetic with an entire mob of people; and he could distance himself from all of these points of view and mock them or instruct the reader. He could think like Paris itself: he could fly over rivers and creep behind gargoyles.

Cinema has other flaws. With enough pancake and spirit gum and prosthetics, any actor can turn himself into a credible Quasimodo: physical ugliness is easier to mimic than physical beauty. Which is, of course, the problem. So much of Hugo's book, it seems to me, is about how we are imprisoned by our physicality (how else do you explain Frollo's descent from earnest, loving priest to Esmeralda's tormenting admirer?) but also how we transcend it. In the movies we are always reminded of Quasimodo's ugliness and Esmeralda's beauty: he is always half-made, she always a shining gem, as their names suggest.

But Quasimodo is sometimes beautiful, and not just metaphorically. In one of the book's most famous scenes, he rescues Esmeralda from the gallows and spirits her into the cathedral, yelling, "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" And, says Hugo, "at that moment Quasimodo was really beautiful. Yes, he was beautiful—he, that orphan, that foundling, that outcast." The crowd outside the cathedral sees it, and cries and laughs and cheers.

This is something a movie can never accomplish: he really is beautiful. Everyone sees it.

I recommend the 1939 Charles Laughton version for Laughton himself, who acts more with his one visible eye in five seconds than most other men with their whole bodies in three hours. He is extraordinary. But I cannot forgive the makers of the movie for letting him live, or for sending Esmeralda off in the arms of—good grief!—Gringoire.

In the book, Gringoire's fate is Djali, the goat. It's the only happy marriage of two living things in the entire book. Do not scorn the love of a goat: it is a powerful, touching thing, at least in Hugo's hands. Flaubert, some years later, named Madame Bovary's lap dog Djali, and small wonder: Djali is one of the greatest animal characters in all of literature, the role any goat actor would give up a hoof to play. (The best portrayal of Djali is in the 1957 Anthony Quinn Hunchback, which has little else to recommend it, apart from Gina Lollobrigida's really impressive corseted torso; Quinn plays Quasimodo like a five-year-old with a backache.) When Gringoire and Djali are reunited near the end of the book, she rubs against his knees, "covering the poet with caresses and white hairs." Anyone can see this is true love. When he is faced with the choice of saving the goat or his former wife from the now quite mad Frollo, Gringoire's eyes fill with tears. The goat will be hanged alongside Esmeralda. In anguish, he looks into his heart and finds the answer: he shakes off Esmeralda's pleading grip and spirits away the goat. It's such an odd moment, comic and moving at once. Hugo manages to suggest that only a much more noble man would have tried to save the woman, and that the much more noble man would then have paid with his life. And who's to say that a man who lives with a goat is less admirable than a man who dies with his dignity?

But to unite in love Gringoire and Esmeralda? It's ludicrous in the way of all forced happy endings, because it ignores the Greek word carved on the wall of Claude Frollo's cell: ANÁҐKH. Fate. Doom. Necessity. In a preface written for the book, Hugo said he'd seen that particular graffito on a visit to the cathedral; after the success of the book, tourists added it themselves so often the various fates began to obscure each other.

Fate is powerful, and its greatest weapon—not a gift, never a gift in the book—is love. In a book full of prisons and pseudo-prisons—Frollo's cell, the Recluse's rat hole, the pillories, the bell tower, Quasimodo's own body—love of another person is the worst.

Love is lethal. Love will pick you up and fling you from Paris's tallest building. It will lead you to the gallows. It will lock you in a tower, and when it finally releases you, it will smash your head on a paving stone. If you love your brother, he will disappoint you at every turn; if you love your baby, she will be taken from you. If you love Esmeralda, you will be tortured and rebuked, and then you will die for love.

No Hollywood happy endings here.

There is one beautiful love story in the book—far lovelier than anyone's pining over the beautiful gypsy girl, more moving than the Recluse's love for her daughter—and that's the romance between Quasimodo and his bells. It is returned, it is not fruitless, it has lasted, when the book begins, for years.

"He loved them, he caressed them, he talked to them, he understood them"—and they do so likewise. The bell ringer and the rung bells shout endearments to each other in the bell tower—they have to shout, because the bells deafened Quasimodo some years before. A small price to pay for requited love, though he's already half-formed and half-blind. He can still hear the bells, just not human beings. Perhaps they have deafened him out of jealousy.

And then he meets Esmeralda, and forsakes them.

For me, the most tragic moment of the book comes when Quasimodo, at the top of the north bell tower, looks down and sees Esmeralda on the gallows and says, "There is all I ever loved!" It is awful because it isn't true: behind him are six of his once beloved bells. Across from him, in the south tower, is his favorite, the largest, Mary, and her sister, Jacqueline. He has forgotten them; they would take him back even now. But Hugo has already foreseen the cathedral's own heartbreak: after Quasimodo, Notre-Dame seems dead: "It is like a skull: the sockets of the eyes are still there, but the gaze has disappeared." If he, like Gringoire, had honored requited love, he would not need to die for love at all.

But it is his fate to do so. Love makes him no better than any of those people with more usual souls housed in more usual bodies.

Which is, in the end, why Quasimodo haunts us, as he haunts the cathedral and the book itself. He embodies a basic human fact: we are neither the container nor the thing contained. We exist somewhere on the pulsating edge between the two. "His spirit expanded in harmony with the cathedral," Hugo writes of Quasimodo. "His sharp corners dovetailed, if we may be allowed the expression, into the receding angles of the building, so that he seemed to be not merely its inhabitant but its natural contents." Our salient angles are always shaped by the physical world, by our bodies and the spaces our bodies inhabit. Our souls change when our bodies do, as we age and improve and decline, when we suffer accidents and when we heal, when people look at us and judge us beautiful or abnormal—whether we are awarded the Golden Porpoise or the crown of the Pope of Fools. When Pierre Gringoire happens into the Cour des Miracles and finds, there in the middle of the forest, beggars casting off afflictions, blind men seeing, the legless acquiring legs, it as though he really is watching miracles, and not the end of a long day of fraud. And he is: they are different people when they see and walk, as surely transformed as if they'd been truly afflicted, and truly cured. How people look at you changes everything, no matter how you may wish otherwise.

We are more than our bodies, always; but we require them to bind us to the earth, and each body is binding in a different way. The body is a bucket; without it, we would be nothing but puddles on the paving stones, noble puddles, beneath notice, beneath use.

So Quasimodo's deformed body is what we first see in Hugo's novel; it is pages and pages before we see his soul. Hugo's patience with his characters is astonishing. Frollo is drawn the opposite way, a human who eventually turns monstrous. They are both more moving and realistic for being inconsistent, though The Hunchback of NotreDame would probably never be considered a realistic novel. It is too unlikely. These days novels tend to be classified as either Realistic Fiction—books that take place in an average world, with average characters—or Unrealistic: magic realism, science fiction, our old fables, our new ones. I wonder, really, whether that's an offshoot of several generations of readers and writers raised on the movies. Having seen the fantastic on the movie screen, people better looking than our neighbors, richer, in more peril, in deeper love—maybe now we're more likely to go to books to learn about people somewhat like ourselves, people who are neither vagabonds nor kings but somewhere between the two.

But there is a much wider spectrum. Real people, actual living people, are bizarre, full of eccentricities (both physical and spiritual) and sudden hatred and wells of love. Quasimodo has an actual hump, but we are all deviant somehow. We are not average. We are not normal. I can't imagine why we spend so much time trying.

Every day on this planet is full of occurrences and people so unlikely that we would not believe them for a moment unless presented with concrete evidence. What we think of as realism—in books and in movies—is too often a very sad kind of averaging of the human experience. It is plot based on statistical probability, personality shaped out of what feels familiar. And, strangely enough, that means that the element so-called realism most often removes from the world of the book is Hugo's ANÁҐKH. Fate. Things happen because there's no reason—if we examine the actuarial tables—for them not to happen. Perhaps we don't believe in Fate anymore, now that we are able to run so many numbers in so many ways.

But Fate—that which must come to pass, despite our best wishes for a happy ending—occurs to the individual, not the demographic group, and great art is about what occurs to the individual, not the demographic group. Just because something happens less often, does that make it less realistic?

Life is implausible. Novels distill what is possible, what is inevitable, what is shocking, what is true, so that at the end we are clobbered over the head by ANÁҐKH. Fate: that which is surprising and inevitable. Fate is different in every work of art, will play out on stages as small as kitchens or as large as Paris, will exact its price subtly or explicitly, will save one character and kill another, and there is no way to tell, on page one, how it will happen. That is realism. We may have fate inscribed upon us when we are born, but we will be ignorant of the details.

The characters in The Hunchback of NotreDame suffer at the hands of their passions, and their passions change in an instant—which is, in fact, human nature; only in fiction are characters so resolute that they are not able to despise someone half a second after they have declared their love, as Frollo does; or vice versa, as does the Recluse of the Rat Hole. Do I believe that every day a superhumanly strong hunchback falls in love with the beautiful dark-haired girl who is also beloved by his adoptive father, the priest? Do I believe that a woman who has imprisoned herself in a tower grabs her mortal enemy by the wrist and discovers that her enemy is in fact her long-lost daughter? Do I believe that two brothers are killed falling from the same cathedral, that two people die because they have clung to the same woman, or that a goat will fling herself into the arms of the poet she loves?

Not every day, or course, or every year, or every century. But that it happened almost six hundred years ago, beginning on the sixth of January, 1482: yes. I do believe it happened.

"The book will kill the building," Frollo declares in Book V, Chapter I, and then Hugo's narrator elucidates in the next chapter. The printing press will change everything, has changed everything, is an endless architectural monument producing bricks for a tower, and replaces monuments like Notre-Dame itself. And, of course, he is right, because here is this novel, safe from weather, fire,

revolutions, renovations, earthquakes. It cannot be blown up by man or toppled over by God; it fits in your hand but is larger than a cathedral.

Reader, here is your book.

Source: Elizabeth McCracken, "Introduction," in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Modern Library, 2002, pp. xi–xx.

Timothy Raser

In the following excerpt, Raser presents decline in many aspects of society as the "deep subject" of Hugo's novel.

Hernani was a great success, but this success was achieved only after as "battle" during which Hugo's proponents, young members of the Romantic movement, systematically cheered the play and drowned out its opponents—literary conservatives—for the first week of its performance. In the success following those first performances, Hugo neglected to give the option of first refusal to Gosselin, publisher of Le Dernier Jour d'un condamné, and in order to rectify this breach of contract, promised Gosselin a new novel for January 1831, thus agreeing to write a major work in less than a year. The July Revolution (1830), during which the Bourbon monarchy was replaced by the house of Orléans, interrupted this work, and Gosselin granted Hugo a short respite. The manuscript was published on 16 March; it was entitled NotreDame Paris.

The novel, set in Paris in [1482], recounts three men's love and one woman's hatred for a young Gypsy dancer, Esmeralda, who in turn loves a fourth man: the handsome soldier Phoebus. The men incarnate different classes of medieval society: Quasimodo, the cathedral's hunchbacked bell ringer, represents the lower classes; Claude Frollo, the cathedral's deacon and Quasimodo's guardian, represents the clergy; Pierre Gringoire, an unappreciated author, is marginalized, as unable to participate in society as he is to consummate his marriage of convenience to Esmeralda. Complementing the three men is an old woman, Paquette Chantefleurie, whose baby was stolen years ago by Gypsies, and who has vowed an undying hatred for that group. Phoebus wins Esmeralda's heart and, at the moment of fulfilling his passion for her, is struck by Frollo, but Esmeralda is the one who is charged with murder (even though Phoebus survives) and sorcery. Tried and convicted, Esmeralda is rescued by Quasimodo, only to fall into the hands of Paquette, who recognizes her as her long-lost daughter Agnès, but too late. Esmeralda is arrested again and hanged; Quasimodo, understanding Frollo's role in this judicial murder, throws his master from the cathedral's tower, only to wander off to Esmeralda's pauper's grave, and to die with her body in his arms.

The plot is undoubtedly both sentimental and melodramatic. The diabolical priest, the handsome, free-living soldier, and the devoted but deformed hunchback all spring from the repertory of popular fiction, and it is easy, reading for the plot alone, to dismiss the novel. Indeed, English critic John Ruskin was so outraged by Hugo's portrait of his cherished medieval city that he labeled the book "disgusting." Nonetheless, it was an immediate success, going into several editions in two years; the "eight" edition (published by Renduel) includes three chapters Hugo had withheld from Gosselin in hopes of raising the book's price.

Critics agree that it is not the plot, but the evocation of the Middle Ages that constitutes the center of the novel's interest, and the statement that the cathedral is its main character is of great validity. Two chapters in particular are singled out for praise: "Notre-Dame de Paris" and "Paris à vol d'oiseau" (A Bird's-eye View of Paris). In the first Hugo claims to evoke the cathedral, not as it is in 1832, but as it was in 1482, before the ravages of time and man. Then, it was incomparably more beautiful than now, and if it has suffered through the centuries, it is not due to any weathering, but to revolutions, restorations, and changes of fashion. Notre-Dame appears as a worn masterpiece from another era, a work bridging two periods (Romanesque and Gothic), and bringing that sense of transition to the present day. The other chapter describes Paris as it was 350 years prior to the book's publication and evokes the many quarters, churches, and monuments of the medieval city, its narrow confines and its outlying towns. Hugo opposes this vision to the more recent developments of Parisian geography and deplores the Renaissance and its effects. Just as time has damaged the cathedral, each century has taken with it much of Paris's medieval beauty.

What becomes more apparent as one reads NotreDame de Paris is that its deep subject is decline: that of the cathedral and Paris, to be sure, but also that of the monarchy (in an often-noted scene, the king asks when his time will come), of architecture (Claude Frollo foretells the demise, with the advent of the printed book, of the cathedral as a source of knowledge), and of individual resolve (Frollo slowly gives in to his diabolical impulses). Hugo refers to this process as 'ANÁҐKH, or fate: this is the word Frollo scratches on the wall when Esmeralda haunts his thoughts; this is the principle the priest invokes when, fascinated, he watches a fly perish in a spider's web. The fly's predicament symbolizes his own passion for Esmeralda as well as Esmeralda's own inability to extricate herself from the judicial system, the cathedral's demise in the web of printed words, and the monarchy's futile struggle in the web of history. It is important here not to confuse fate with progress: to be sure, the decline of the monarchy or of superstition can be understood as the coming of a better order. The force that Hugo describes as " ANÁҐKH, however, is blind, careless of whether it produces good or evil. Fate brings the printed book but also the guillotine; Frollo's death but also Esmeralda's; the end of monarchy but also revolution.

Even in this work "d'imagination, de caprice et de fantaisie" (of imagination, caprice, and fantasy), there is a strong current of social commentary, and the themes of judicial cruelty, of institutional blindness, and of social upheaval are never far from the surface. At the very moment that Louis XI's Flemish visitor reassures him (ironically, in the fortress of the Bastille) that monarchy will last for some time to come, the criminal rabble of Paris is assaulting Notre-Dame—nominally the king's responsibility to defend—and this violence must be put down with even more violence. When Esmeralda is tried for sorcery, she at first denies knowledge of the black art but, upon being tortured, confesses to having killed a man still alive and is condemned to death on the basis of this confession, citations from books of necromancy, and the testimony of her pet goat. The comedy of this trial only makes its tragic out-come more poignant. However one looks at the novel—from the point of view of its description, or its characterization, or its social commentary—Hugo tells a story of relentless fatalism, of a vanishing world's resignation to its own disappearance.

When Notre-Dame de Paris, was published, Hugo's friend Vigny expressed his pleasure at the novel. The poet Alphonse de Lamartine called its author "le Shakespeare du roman" (the Shakespeare of the novel) but faulted it for its insufficient expression of religious belief. Charles de Montalembert criticized it for the quality that Hugo deliberately sought in his plays: "ce mélange continuel du grotesque au tragique" (this continual mixture of the grotesque and the tragic).…

Source: Timothy Raser, "Victor Hugo," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 119, Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800–1860, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 164–92.


Porter, Laurence M., "Preface," in Victor Hugo, Twayne Publisher, 1999, pp. vii–xviii.

Robb, Graham, Victor Hugo: A Biography, Norton, 1997.

Further Reading

Baguley, David, Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza, Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

In this book, readers meet Napoleon III who dismantled France's republic and took it upon himself to establish a dictatorship. This nephew of the more famous Bonaparte lived in his uncle's shadow but tried desperately to outshine him.

Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain, Notre-Dame de Paris, HarryN. Abrams, 1998.

Critics highly recommend a slow reading of this beautiful book that portrays the long history and the architectural accomplishments of one of the Middle Age's most magnificent buildings.

Kelly, Linda, The Young Romantics: Victor Hugo, Sainte-Beuve, Vigny, Dumas, Musset, and George Sand and Their Friendships, Feuds, and Loves in the French Romantic Revolution, Random House, 1976.

Kelly provides a good background study of the early authors of the French Romantic Movement.

Yors, Jan, The Gypsies, Waveland Press, 1989.

When he was only twelve years old, Jan Yors ran away from his home in Belgium and lived with a group of gypsies, following them from one country to another, learning their culture from the inside. This book has won praise from the critics for its first-hand account of life with one group of gypsies.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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