Criticism

Roles of La Esmeralda

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...

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For a moment, let us forget Quasimodo.

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