Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
Hugo wrote in his accompanying note to The Hunchback of Notre Dame that he had seen the Greek word anankê (fatality) scratched on a wall inside the cathedral and that “it is around this word that this book has been written.” Fatality is an important theme in the novel, as is love in its various forms. In addition, the antithesis between the grotesque and the sublime—a concept dear to the author—shows that ugliness, far from reflecting vice and sin, signifies instead virtue and greatness of soul. Similarly, neither is knowledge for knowledge’s sake synonymous with wisdom. Such worldviews have repercussions for young adult readers since they, like the protagonists, often consider the personal forces driving them and the moral choices confronting them in trying to live well.
From the beginning of the novel, the characters’ lives are ruled by an absurd fatality that is at once physical, historical, hereditary, and social. The monstrous Quasimodo is turned into a subhuman animal creature (one chapter is entitled “The Dog and His Master”), destined to suffer misfortune. On the other hand, Phoebus, whose name associates him with the Greek sun-god, is the epitome of superficial beauty, which assures a professional success further guaranteed by his aristocratic origins. Frollo, the scratcher of the word anankê, is destroyed metaphysically and literally both by his heretical quest for gold and by his evil pursuit of Esmeralda. For her part, because she is a gypsy and therefore an outcast, she is fated to be rejected—like the foundling Quasimodo, but for different reasons—by an intolerant and xenophobic populace. The “vast symphony in stone” that is Notre Dame is not immune from decline and metaphorical death either. As Hugo predicts in no uncertain terms, the cathedral—mysterious, immense, filled with symbols—is itself doomed to extinction by the advent of the printing press. Books will replace the stories told in stained glass windows or in sculpted scenes around the portals.
Love is one fatality common to all. Frollo’s passion for Esmeralda is based on an intense sexual and psychological need to possess her, just as he wants to possess ultimate knowledge. The jealousy that he feels is motivated as much by unrequited desire as by his realization that the hold his position should give him over Esmeralda is completely useless since she never gives in to his threats. Driven by powers outside his control and frustrated by her refusals, he can only cause her unjust destruction. Phoebus is more careless than wanton in his response to Esmeralda’s love: An empty-headed braggart, he is obviously flattered, but, like her, he also has a “tragic end”: He gets married. Thanks to Esmeralda’s act of kindness, Quasimodo reveals that behind his repulsive exterior shines a luminous soul. Self-sacrifice and devotion are better proofs of love than Frollo’s egotism or Phoebus’ opportunism.
While Quasimodo is transformed through love, Esmeralda remains throughout the book an angelic vision. Among all the horror and pain, she is the only figure of absolute purity and light, and as such she is often compared to the Virgin Mary. Indeed, she incarnates beauty in the face of ugliness, pity in the face of cruelty, true love in the face of fickleness. That she was misled by Phoebus’ good looks points out her human fragility and her own kind of fatality. Quasimodo should have been her companion: His heart of gold is more real than the alchemical gold sought by Frollo, and his inner beauty more lasting than Phoebus’ surface one. In the final chapter, aptly called “Quasimodo’s Marriage,” the ill-fated hunchback dies of love embracing the body of Esmeralda.
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