Last Updated on November 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo’s second novel, emphasizes the theme of ananke, the Greek word for fate or necessity. Ananke appears in the novel chiefly as inevitable transition; stylistically, the transition is from classicism to Romanticism and, ultimately, from the human to the divine. The cathedral of Notre-Dame is the embodiment of what must be recognized as the permanence of transition. In origin a Gallo-Roman temple to the classical deity Jupiter, it became a Christian basilica and, later, in the twelfth century, a Romanesque cathedral; as its construction continued into the thirteenth century, the Gothic style overtook and succeeded the Romanesque configuration; and the cathedral, completed in 1345, stood as the architectural scripture of its own history. The novel is about this cathedral as a statement of ananke more than it is about any particular one of its many characters. In that sense, to translate the title, Notre-Dame de Paris, into The Hunchback of Notre Dame is seriously to delimit the magnitude of the novel.
The action of the novel begins on January 6, 1482, and ends in July of the same year, with an epilogistic chapter disclosing the fate of Quasimodo, the hunchback, dated to mid-1484. Esmeralda, a sixteen-year-old woman, identified as a gypsy and dancing in the company of her trained goat, catches the eye of Archdeacon Frollo, who orders his misshapen ward, Quasimodo, to kidnap her. Gringoire, a poet, fails in his efforts to intervene, but Esmeralda is rescued by Captain Phoebus and falls in love with him. She becomes the “bride” of Gringoire in a mock ceremony produced by a “court” of beggars. She later becomes the “bride” of Captain Phoebus, who promises marital commitment in his seduction of her but is murdered by Frollo before he can consummate his desire. Frollo frames her for the murder of Phoebus and offers to save her life if she will yield to his desire. She refuses and is then temporarily saved from execution by Quasimodo, who engineers sanctuary for her in the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Quasimodo also loves her and ultimately, after her actual execution, embraces her in death as his “bride” and achieves burial with her.
Esmeralda, loving the one man who does not really love her and being loved by three men whom she does not love, remains a virgin through three “marriages,” as Hugo reconstructs the Christian Trinity through Our Lady: Mother, Daughter, and Holy Spirit. Esmeralda is the point at which virginity, motherhood, and divinity intersect. Esmeralda, issuing from the womb of Our Lady (the cathedral that had been her sanctuary) is executed in an analogue to crucifixion. By the same spiritual geometry, Notre-Dame, the cathedral of the Mother Church, with its eponymous Virgin Mary as divine Mother, is the temporal-spatial point at which ancient, medieval, and modern architectural logoi (words) intersect in permanent transition. The transition is marked by the fifteenth century invention that will supersede the Logos of architecture: the printing press, which will prevail as the new Writing of humankind. The printed book is identified, in a chapter titled “Ceci tuera cela” (this will kill that), as the killer of architectural scripture and as the new representation of the human mind.
The narrative integrates some of the standard devices of ancient romance—such as the switching of infants, with the gypsy-infant Quasimodo substituted for Agnes, the daughter of Paquette la Chantefleurie, and the infant’s shoe by which the mother sixteen years later recognizes Esmeralda as her daughter—and Hugo’s Romanticism, in which truth reposes in darkness and grotesquerie. The true depth of the human spirit is sounded in the emotions of the shadow-concealed, deformed, one-eyed Quasimodo. The falsity of exterior light is explicit in the shallow, shining-knight-like Captain Phoebus, whose name is a metonym of the sun.