The Hunchback of Notre Dame Essay - Critical Context

Victor Hugo

Critical Context

Although The Hunchback of Notre Dame was preceded by other French historical novels, such as Madame de La Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves (1678; The Princess of Clèves, 1679) or Alfred de Vigny’s Cinq-Mars (1826), the work that had the most immediate influence on Victor Hugo’s conception was Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward (1823). Not only did Hugo want to surpass Scott in his portrayal of the world of Louis XI, but, as he wrote in his review-essay on the English novel, he too intended “to express a useful truth in an interesting story.” Hugo also helped usher in a renewed interest in and admiration for everything medieval, especially gothic architecture. Furthermore, he was the first to present large crowds in motion, a group-character later used by Leo Tolstoy in Russia and Émile Zola in France, among others.

Through his visionary imagination, Hugo knew how to weave a dramatic narrative, how to evoke an authentic historical era, and how to depict a setting vividly and picturesquely. All this explains why The Hunchback of Notre Dame was and remains such a great success. Excelling in poetry, drama, and fiction, Hugo continued to explore the struggles of the individual against nature in Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866; Toilers of the Sea, 1866), against society in L’Homme qui rit (1869; The Man Who Laughs, 1869), or against history in Quatre-vingt-treize (1874; Ninety-three, 1874). In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he rationalized the presence of evil in the world by attributing it to human powerlessness before fatality. Les Misérables (1862; English translation, 1862), especially, went even further by advancing the proposition that there is no evil in good and that there is good in evil.