Victor Hugo, leader of the French Romantic movement, not only could tell a gripping story but also could endow his essentially Romantic characters with a realism so powerful that they have become monumental literary figures. The Hunchback of Notre Dame has every quality of a good novel: an exciting story, a magnificent setting, and deep, lasting characterizations. Perhaps the compelling truth of this novel lies in the idea that God has created in the human form an imperfect image of God, an image fettered by society, by the body, and by temptation, but one which, in the last analysis, has the freedom to transcend these limitations and achieve spiritual greatness.
Hugo was inspired to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame when he accidentally discovered the Greek word for “fate” carved into an obscure wall of one of Notre Dame Cathedral’s towers. Each personality in the novel is built around a “fixed idea”: Claude Frollo embodies the consuming, destructive passion of lust; Esmeralda, virgin beauty and purity; Quasimodo, devotion and loyalty. Hugo’s characters do not develop but simply play out their given natures to their conclusions. In analyzing the character of archdeacon Frollo, it is helpful to understand Hugo’s theory that the advent of Christianity in Western Europe marked a new era in literature and art. Christianity views the individual as a creature half animal and half spirit—the link between beast and angel. Working with this interpretation, writers could present people as ugly and lowly as well as beautiful and sublime. Christian writers could, in Hugo’s view, attain a new synthesis in the understanding of human character, more meaningful because it was realistic, not achieved by writers of antiquity, who only depicted idealized, larger-than-life subjects on the grounds that “art should correct nature.” Frollo excludes all human contact from his life and locks himself up with his books; when he has mastered all the legitimate branches of knowledge, he has nowhere to turn in his obsession but to the realm of alchemy and the occult. He is ultimately destroyed, along with those around him, because in denying his animal nature and shutting off all avenues for the release of his natural drives and affections, he falls into the depths of a lustful passion that amounts to madness.
As the novel develops, Quasimodo, the hunchback of the novel’s title, is increasingly trapped between his love for the gypsy Esmeralda and his love for the archdeacon, his...
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