Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030

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.

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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 master and protector. These two loyalties finally create an irreconcilable conflict, and a choice must be made. When the priest destroys the gypsy, the bell ringer hurls his master from the heights of Notre Dame: a fitting death for Frollo, symbolic of his descent from the sublime to the bestial. In Quasimodo, Hugo dramatizes his belief that the grotesque and the sublime must coexist in art and literature, as they do in life. The writer, Hugo pointed out, “will realize that everything in creation is not humanly beautiful, that the ugly exists beside the beautiful, the unshapely beside the graceful . . . and [he] will ask . . . if a mutilated nature will be the more beautiful for the mutilation.” Esmeralda is the embodiment of innocence and beauty. She is held in reverence even by the criminals of Paris, who vaguely equate her in their minds with the Virgin Mary. Her beauty, however, is too innocent and pure to exist amid the brutality and sinfulness of her world. Of all the men in the book, only one is worthy of Esmeralda: the hunchbacked Quasimodo, who loves her so totally and unselfishly that he would rather die than go on living after she is executed. Appropriately, it is Esmeralda and Quasimodo who are finally “married” in the charnel house at Montfaucon; theirs is the perfect union of physical and spiritual beauty.

Almost more than by any of the human characters, the novel is dominated by the cathedral itself. The hero, Quasimodo, understands Notre Dame: He is in tune with its “life.” Like its deformed bell ringer, Notre Dame is ugly and beautiful, strong and vulnerable, destructive and life-giving. Quasimodo’s monstrous face hides a loving, faithful spirit, and his twisted body conceals a superhuman strength; Notre Dame’s beautiful sanctuary is enclosed by an exterior encrusted with gargoyles. Its treasures are guarded by doors that six thousand maddened vagrants cannot batter down. The cathedral and the ringer work together, almost as one entity, to protect Esmeralda in her room hundreds of feet above the city.

Setting was all-important to Hugo. As the foremost French Romanticist of the nineteenth century, he was fascinated by the medieval period and strove to reconstruct it in such a way that it would live again in his novel. Hugo believed that a description built on exact, localized details would recapture the mood of a historical period; he also believed that setting was as crucial as characterization in engraving a “faithful representation of the facts” on the minds of his readers. Early in the novel, therefore, Hugo devotes an entire section to a description of the cathedral and the city of Paris, and throughout the book, he offers brief passages of historical background that add verisimilitude to his narrative.

In the preface to his play Cromwell (1827), Hugo wrote, “The place where this or that catastrophe took place becomes a terrible and inseparable witness thereof; and the absence of silent characters of this sort would make the greatest scenes in history incomplete in the drama.” Thus, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, not only does the cathedral live almost as a personality, but so also does the Place de la Greve spread its influence over the lives of all the characters. The cathedral and the square are the two focal points not only of the setting but also of the plot and the theme of the novel; the former embodies the spiritual and beautiful, the latter the lowly and cruel. It is the cathedral that enfolds the humble and loyal Quasimodo and the compassionate Esmeralda, while the square, the scene of poverty, suffering, and grisly death, with its Rat-Hole and its gibbet, claims Esmeralda, her lunatic mother, and Frollo as its victims.

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