Roles of La Esmeralda

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1726

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.

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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 religious vows dictate. His mind, throughout his adult life, has been focused on books and the care of two orphaned children. He is sought after as a master of reasoning and understanding. His knowledge far exceeds the dogma of his church; he studies medicine and science and alchemy. And yet, beneath the mantle of intellect is Frollo’s Achilles heel, his mortal character flaw. Frollo melts at the sight of La Esmeralda. He not only is affected by her beauty, his passions for her controls his behavior. La Esmeralda has turned this great angel of intellect into a devil of lust. Because of his need of her, Frollo will abuse Quasimodo and will attempt to assassinate his rival Phoebus. He will lie, cheat, and scheme. In other words, because of La Esmeralda, Frollo is, along with the story, transformed.

It should be pointed out that La Esmeralda is powerful in spite of herself. Although her godgiven beauty incites the characters of this novel and moves the story along, La Esmeralda herself lacks personal power. Or maybe this should be stated in another way. La Esmeralda has her own Achilles heel, her own point of weakness. She desires a perfect love. And her definition of perfect love comes to her in the form of Phoebus, a vain, shallow soldier, whose own beauty inflates his ego and overshadows his heart. Whether it is the handsomeness of this king’s archer that captivates La Esmeralda or it is his rank, the young gypsy woman cannot see beyond what she thinks he is to the real dangers that he presents. He is the one she wants no matter how heartlessly he treats her. Thus La Esmeralda is blinded. But even in her weakest state, even in spite of herself, La Esmeralda exerts power. As ruthless as Phoebus is, how can he not be affected by the innocent La Esmeralda. He has no doubt wronged many women in his lifetime, but who among even the most cynical of men could watch the hanging of this woman, knowing that his voice of truth could save her life and not be affected by her innocence? Hugo writes that after La Esmeralda’s death, Phoebus marries, but Hugo leaves undetermined the idea that the young couple lived happily ever after. There is another option available, one more plausible, one that rings more true. Phoebus, in his inability to speak out and save La Esmeralda, is a marked man. Let there be no doubt of the psychological consequences of his missed actions. Although Phoebus may witness and maybe even cause, many deaths in his lifetime, La Esmeralda’s will be the one that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

In the dramatic conclusion of this story, it is not through Frollo, in his vow to either have La Esmeralda or to destroy her, that the final turn in the story takes place. It is not really Phoebus, in his role of king’s deputy, whose order it is to find La Esmeralda and bring her to the hangman’s rope, who moves the novel to its final resting place. Even Quasimodo, in his deep love to save La Esmeralda, is helpless to shift the story from one path to another. And what about Gringoire? He does reappear, and he is instrumental in helping to bring the story to a conclusion, but his actions do not define the final swing. Rather, as in all other parts of the story, in all the other transitions, it is La Esmeralda who casts the final dice in determining how the story concludes. Whether one wants to portray La Esmeralda in the light of power or in the consequence of her weakness, it is for her unselfish love of Phoebus, her blind desire for a perfect love that this story takes its last turn. She has found her mother at last, and her mother, in the last few breaths of her life is determined to save her daughter— this child who was stolen from her and for whom the mother has grieved all of her life. The mother hides La Esmeralda, but La Esmeralda cannot hide from her lover. She cannot protect herself from the wrath of this man. She is willing to give him one more chance. She believes that his love of her is much greater than the love of her mother. La Esmeralda will offer herself to Phoebus, believing that he alone can save her. But she is mortally wrong.

And so the story takes its final turn. La Esmeralda has led the story along its path, turning and twisting its fate, persuading and evading its characters, challenging and tempting its motives from beginning to end. And in that end, she once again has a profound effect, not just on the storyline and the fictitious people who play out their created roles. This time, if in no other portion of the novel, La Esmeralda uses her power to affect readers. Even in death, after the flesh of her beauty has been eaten away, after her pure heart has shriveled out of sight and all that remains is her skeleton, La Esmeralda leaves her readers with a disturbing image that will revisit them and possibly drive them to visit Paris in irrational hopes of catching a glimpse of the dancing gypsy. Hugo gives La Esmeralda the last moment, demonstrating the power of this female character, who may not be the protagonist but without her the story would lack the energy to propel itself to the end. Who would not be moved by the final sight of Quasimodo’s skeleton embracing his only true love, the giver of strength and inspiration of change? Of course, it is La Esmeralda.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Introduction Essay

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3797

For a moment, let us forget Quasimodo.

You know him already, of course. He is one of the most famous fictional characters of all time, a creation so indelibly described that—even if you have never seen an illustration, on paper or canvas or celluloid— you would recognize him walking down the street. Like Hugo, I “shall not attempt to give the reader any idea of that tetrahedron nose, of that horseshoe mouth, of that little left eye, obscured by a bristly red eyebrow, while the right was completely overwhelmed and buried by an enormous wart; of those irregular teeth, jagged here and there like the battlements of a fortress; of that horny lip, over which one of those teeth protruded . . .” The bell ringer of NotreDame requires no introduction at all.

I mean to introduce the entire book, which is a great work of literature. Those words once suggested a book you had to read; now they suggest one you needn’t bother with, because so many generations have done it for you. Surely by now the plot of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (or Robinson Crusoe, or A Tale of Two Cities) is encoded in our DNA, a kind of evolutionary Cliff’s Note.

The fact is, most novels, great and bad, are best read in a state of near ignorance. You are always more easily and pleasantly seduced—even by a brilliant seducer—without the voice of your mother or your eighth-grade English teacher in your ear. Perhaps the only proper introduction for a Great Novel is: Reader, here is your book. Book, here is your reader—

—except we often know just enough about great novels to dissuade us from reading them. In the case of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, I blame Quasimodo. Not the one who lives between the covers of the book but the one who haunts the world at large, the sweet Beast who falls in love with the unattainable Beauty, that whiff of melodrama about him, the human heart awoken by love. Actors want to play him, in movies and musicals. They’ve made him into a g——d—— Disney character, in a cartoon whose moral is that good triumphs, evil fails, and people will accept you for your essential niceness even if your face is, well, a little lopsided.

This book, this great book, is not nice. It is merciless. It is full of poetry and ideas, tragedy and moments of laugh-out-loud comedy. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is a Gothic cathedral of a novel, as endlessly beautiful, instructive, tragic, and brilliantly formed, as darkly funny, diverting, and entertaining. It’s as interested in small things as grand, as crammed with detail, and as rigorously organized: broad-shouldered, full of gargoyletopped alcoves and saint-filled niches you can find your way back to without much trouble, if you have paid attention.

And Quasimodo is only one of these treasures. He isn’t even the true eponymous hero of Victor Hugo’s novel, which was called by its author Notre-Dame de Paris. The English title, which Hugo hated, narrows the book down to one character and one building. In fact, this is a book full of heroes and monsters, saints and gargoyles, and saints-turned-gargoyles. For quite a while, the book seems to be a wandering mass of characters, though slowly we meet the essential players: Pierre Gringoire, luckless poet, who leads us through Paris and to Esmeralda, who saves him from being ordered hanged by the King of the Tramps at the Cour des Miracles; Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre-Dame, who took in the foundling Quasimodo; Frollo’s dissolute younger brother, Jehan; Esmeralda’s exquisite goat, Djali; and the mysterious and wrenching recluse Sister Gudule (“Sack Woman”), formerly known as Paquette la Chantefleurie, who has shut herself in the Rat Hole, a basement cell with no door that has been expressly designed for women “who should wish to bury themselves alive, on account of some great calamity or some extraordinary penance.” She has cast herself out of society, which makes her somehow more monstrous than even Quasimodo.

There is, of course, no actual aimlessness— you cannot discern the architecture of a cathedral by examining the carving on one doorjamb, exquisite though it might be. Slowly, as you read along, you see the brilliant organization. The structure is one of the true pleasures of the novel. Notre- Dame de Paris is broken into eleven books, which are in turn broken into smaller titled chapters. Some titles are charming and comic—for instance, “The Danger of Trusting a Goat with a Secret”—and others named for characters or locations whose natures are described therein. Some cover essential plot points and some are more digressive, some are a single page, and some thirty pages long, but each is beautifully shaped and satisfying. Your tour guide will lead you up a circular stone staircase, or into the rose-window-lit apse; he will point out the smallest cautionary serpent carved into a threshold stone. Serpent, stained glass, the iron bars over a window: no one can say exactly what architectural detail holds a cathedral up, what makes it a cathedral and not a warehouse. Not just size, not just decoration; not merely those spaces that remind us of God because they leave us awestruck, nor those that are homely and holy. Every detail is essential, though they seem too numerous to absorb.

Which is, after all, why you need a tour guide. Hugo’s narrator is funny and mocking and mordant, and one of the first things that is lost in movie adaptations. That’s the problem with filmed versions of books: they take out the poetry and replace it with recorded music. Here on every page is Hugo’s brilliance with metaphor (Quasimodo looks like “a giant who had been broken in pieces and badly soldered together again”); his attention to his characters’ physicality, whether Clopin Trouillefou, King of the Tramps, or Louis XI, King of France; his ability to be simultaneously chilling and laugh-provoking with the merest twist of tone, to educate and to mock—I don’t even know how to begin to catalog all he accomplishes in one paragraph composed of a single sentence in a chapter discussing the former public gallows at La Place de Grève, which ends explaining that in civilized nineteenth-century Paris, there is “but one miserable, furtive, timid, shamefaced guillotine, which always seems as if fearful of being taken in the act, so speedily does it hurry away after striking the fatal blow.”

It is a wicked, compassionate, enticing voice.

When you have finished reading the novel, you can go back. I always do. I love to revisit the third book, which is composed of the chapters “Notre- Dame” and “A Bird’s-eye View of Paris.” No human characters appear in Book III; no dialogue is spoken; the plot is not, it seems, advanced a pace. Mostly the narrator laments urban renewal, renovation, man’s need to tear down the old and replace it, the “thousand various barbarisms” visited upon Notre-Dame, the fact that Paris is “deformed day by day.” The narrator’s voice is sometimes didactic, sometimes satirical—there’s a long and hilarious riff on buildings in Hugo’s own nineteenth-century Paris. He jumps over steeples and centuries, and sometimes he seems to do so only because he can.

But something happens at the end of “A Bird’s-eye View of Paris.” The voice turns seductively imperative. He instructs the reader, the very dear reader, to “build up and put together again in imagination the Paris of the fifteenth century,” and then, step by step, the voice tells you how. It shows what a narrator like this can do: all those imperative verbs are like a great pianist taking your hands in his, and placing your fingers on the keys, and— look! what extraordinary music you can make: you almost believe that you’ve done it yourself, dear reader, most beloved reader. In a book full of sadness and sudden death and good, futile human works and cruelty and fear and disappointment, all those reliable jerkers of tears, it is the end of the bird’s-eye view—accompanied by the bird’stongue song of church bells (written long before bird’s-eye views were as cheap and easy to obtain as footage shot from a plane)—that reliably makes me cry, for its beauty, and its brilliance, and the loss of that world, and then again for its beauty.

Small wonder Hollywood’s so fond of this book; for those of us born since the dawn of cinema, it’s hard to not think, from time to time, What a movie this would make! We’d recognize single-handedly staving off the Tramps who are attempting to storm the cathedral: that is what the hero of an action movie always does. We instinctively hear dramatic music as Claude Frollo hangs from the edge of the cathedral, begging his adopted son for rescue.

But, of course, this is not cinema: this is genius. It’s the kind of peculiar mobile imagination that is rare enough throughout history and may now be rendered impossible, now that we have seen how plausibly (though imperfectly) cameras can mimic it. Can a post-1900 intellect think without being informed by camera angles? Hugo’s eye and sensibility went everywhere. He saw things from Quasimodo’s monocular point of view, and through the Recluse’s barred windows; he could think like the frivolous and yet endearing Gringoire; he could think like an educated goat; he could be sympathetic with an entire mob of people; and he could distance himself from all of these points of view and mock them or instruct the reader. He could think like Paris itself: he could fly over rivers and creep behind gargoyles.

Cinema has other flaws. With enough pancake and spirit gum and prosthetics, any actor can turn himself into a credible Quasimodo: physical ugliness is easier to mimic than physical beauty. Which is, of course, the problem. So much of Hugo’s book, it seems to me, is about how we are imprisoned by our physicality (how else do you explain Frollo’s descent from earnest, loving priest to Esmeralda’s tormenting admirer?) but also how we transcend it. In the movies we are always reminded of Quasimodo’s ugliness and Esmeralda’s beauty: he is always half-made, she always a shining gem, as their names suggest.

But Quasimodo is sometimes beautiful, and not just metaphorically. In one of the book’s most famous scenes, he rescues Esmeralda from the gallows and spirits her into the cathedral, yelling, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” And, says Hugo, “at that moment Quasimodo was really beautiful. Yes, he was beautiful—he, that orphan, that foundling, that outcast.” The crowd outside the cathedral sees it, and cries and laughs and cheers.

This is something a movie can never accomplish: he really is beautiful. Everyone sees it.

I recommend the 1939 Charles Laughton version for Laughton himself, who acts more with his one visible eye in five seconds than most other men with their whole bodies in three hours. He is extraordinary. But I cannot forgive the makers of the movie for letting him live, or for sending Esmeralda off in the arms of—good grief!—Gringoire.

In the book, Gringoire’s fate is Djali, the goat. It’s the only happy marriage of two living things in the entire book. Do not scorn the love of a goat: it is a powerful, touching thing, at least in Hugo’s hands. Flaubert, some years later, named Madame Bovary’s lap dog Djali, and small wonder: Djali is one of the greatest animal characters in all of literature, the role any goat actor would give up a hoof to play. (The best portrayal of Djali is in the 1957 Anthony Quinn Hunchback, which has little else to recommend it, apart from Gina Lollobrigida’s really impressive corseted torso; Quinn plays Quasimodo like a five-year-old with a backache.) When Gringoire and Djali are reunited near the end of the book, she rubs against his knees, “covering the poet with caresses and white hairs.” Anyone can see this is true love. When he is faced with the choice of saving the goat or his former wife from the now quite mad Frollo, Gringoire’s eyes fill with tears. The goat will be hanged alongside Esmeralda. In anguish, he looks into his heart and finds the answer: he shakes off Esmeralda’s pleading grip and spirits away the goat. It’s such an odd moment, comic and moving at once. Hugo manages to suggest that only a much more noble man would have tried to save the woman, and that the much more noble man would then have paid with his life. And who’s to say that a man who lives with a goat is less admirable than a man who dies with his dignity?

But to unite in love Gringoire and Esmeralda? It’s ludicrous in the way of all forced happy endings, because it ignores the Greek word carved on the wall of Claude Frollo’s cell: ANÁΓKH. Fate. Doom. Necessity. In a preface written for the book, Hugo said he’d seen that particular graffito on a visit to the cathedral; after the success of the book, tourists added it themselves so often the various fates began to obscure each other.

Fate is powerful, and its greatest weapon—not a gift, never a gift in the book—is love. In a book full of prisons and pseudo-prisons—Frollo’s cell, the Recluse’s rat hole, the pillories, the bell tower, Quasimodo’s own body—love of another person is the worst.

Love is lethal. Love will pick you up and fling you from Paris’s tallest building. It will lead you to the gallows. It will lock you in a tower, and when it finally releases you, it will smash your head on a paving stone. If you love your brother, he will disappoint you at every turn; if you love your baby, she will be taken from you. If you love Esmeralda, you will be tortured and rebuked, and then you will die for love.

No Hollywood happy endings here.

— There is one beautiful love story in the book— far lovelier than anyone’s pining over the beautiful gypsy girl, more moving than the Recluse’s love for her daughter—and that’s the romance between Quasimodo and his bells. It is returned, it is not fruitless, it has lasted, when the book begins, for years.

“He loved them, he caressed them, he talked to them, he understood them”—and they do so likewise. The bell ringer and the rung bells shout endearments to each other in the bell tower—they have to shout, because the bells deafened Quasimodo some years before. A small price to pay for requited love, though he’s already half-formed and half-blind. He can still hear the bells, just not human beings. Perhaps they have deafened him out of jealousy.

And then he meets Esmeralda, and forsakes them.

For me, the most tragic moment of the book comes when Quasimodo, at the top of the north bell tower, looks down and sees Esmeralda on the gallows and says, “There is all I ever loved!” It is awful because it isn’t true: behind him are six of his once beloved bells. Across from him, in the south tower, is his favorite, the largest, Mary, and her sister, Jacqueline. He has forgotten them; they would take him back even now. But Hugo has already foreseen the cathedral’s own heartbreak: after Quasimodo, Notre-Dame seems dead: “It is like a skull: the sockets of the eyes are still there, but the gaze has disappeared.” If he, like Gringoire, had honored requited love, he would not need to die for love at all.

But it is his fate to do so. Love makes him no better than any of those people with more usual souls housed in more usual bodies.

Which is, in the end, why Quasimodo haunts us, as he haunts the cathedral and the book itself. He embodies a basic human fact: we are neither the container nor the thing contained. We exist somewhere on the pulsating edge between the two. “His spirit expanded in harmony with the cathedral,” Hugo writes of Quasimodo. “His sharp corners dovetailed, if we may be allowed the expression, into the receding angles of the building, so that he seemed to be not merely its inhabitant but its natural contents.” Our salient angles are always shaped by the physical world, by our bodies and the spaces our bodies inhabit. Our souls change when our bodies do, as we age and improve and decline, when we suffer accidents and when we heal, when people look at us and judge us beautiful or abnormal— whether we are awarded the Golden Porpoise or the crown of the Pope of Fools. When Pierre Gringoire happens into the Cour des Miracles and finds, there in the middle of the forest, beggars casting off afflictions, blind men seeing, the legless acquiring legs, it as though he really is watching miracles, and not the end of a long day of fraud. And he is: they are different people when they see and walk, as surely transformed as if they’d been truly afflicted, and truly cured. How people look at you changes everything, no matter how you may wish otherwise.

We are more than our bodies, always; but we require them to bind us to the earth, and each body is binding in a different way. The body is a bucket; without it, we would be nothing but puddles on the paving stones, noble puddles, beneath notice, beneath use.

— So Quasimodo’s deformed body is what we first see in Hugo’s novel; it is pages and pages before we see his soul. Hugo’s patience with his characters is astonishing. Frollo is drawn the opposite way, a human who eventually turns monstrous. They are both more moving and realistic for being inconsistent, though The Hunchback of Notre- Dame would probably never be considered a realistic novel. It is too unlikely. These days novels tend to be classified as either Realistic Fiction— books that take place in an average world, with average characters—or Unrealistic: magic realism, science fiction, our old fables, our new ones. I wonder, really, whether that’s an offshoot of several generations of readers and writers raised on the movies. Having seen the fantastic on the movie screen, people better looking than our neighbors, richer, in more peril, in deeper love—maybe now we’re more likely to go to books to learn about people somewhat like ourselves, people who are neither vagabonds nor kings but somewhere between the two.

But there is a much wider spectrum. Real people, actual living people, are bizarre, full of eccentricities (both physical and spiritual) and sudden hatred and wells of love. Quasimodo has an actual hump, but we are all deviant somehow. We are not average. We are not normal. I can’t imagine why we spend so much time trying.

Every day on this planet is full of occurrences and people so unlikely that we would not believe them for a moment unless presented with concrete evidence. What we think of as realism—in books and in movies—is too often a very sad kind of averaging of the human experience. It is plot based on statistical probability, personality shaped out of what feels familiar. And, strangely enough, that means that the element so-called realism most often removes from the world of the book is Hugo’s ANÁΓKH. Fate. Things happen because there’s no reason—if we examine the actuarial tables—for them not to happen. Perhaps we don’t believe in Fate anymore, now that we are able to run so many numbers in so many ways.

But Fate—that which must come to pass, despite our best wishes for a happy ending—occurs to the individual, not the demographic group, and great art is about what occurs to the individual, not the demographic group. Just because something happens less often, does that make it less realistic?

Life is implausible. Novels distill what is possible, what is inevitable, what is shocking, what is true, so that at the end we are clobbered over the head by ANÁΓKH. Fate: that which is surprising and inevitable. Fate is different in every work of art, will play out on stages as small as kitchens or as large as Paris, will exact its price subtly or explicitly, will save one character and kill another, and there is no way to tell, on page one, how it will happen. That is realism. We may have fate inscribed upon us when we are born, but we will be ignorant of the details.

The characters in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame suffer at the hands of their passions, and their passions change in an instant—which is, in fact, human nature; only in fiction are characters so resolute that they are not able to despise someone half a second after they have declared their love, as Frollo does; or vice versa, as does the Recluse of the Rat Hole. Do I believe that every day a superhumanly strong hunchback falls in love with the beautiful dark-haired girl who is also beloved by his adoptive father, the priest? Do I believe that a woman who has imprisoned herself in a tower grabs her mortal enemy by the wrist and discovers that her enemy is in fact her long-lost daughter? Do I believe that two brothers are killed falling from the same cathedral, that two people die because they have clung to the same woman, or that a goat will fling herself into the arms of the poet she loves?

Not every day, or course, or every year, or every century. But that it happened almost six hundred years ago, beginning on the sixth of January, 1482: yes. I do believe it happened.

— “The book will kill the building,” Frollo declares in Book V, Chapter I, and then Hugo’s narrator elucidates in the next chapter. The printing press will change everything, has changed everything, is an endless architectural monument producing bricks for a tower, and replaces monuments like Notre-Dame itself. And, of course, he is right, because here is this novel, safe from weather, fire, revolutions, renovations, earthquakes. It cannot be blown up by man or toppled over by God; it fits in your hand but is larger than a cathedral. Reader, here is your book.

Source: Elizabeth McCracken, “Introduction,” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Modern Library, 2002, pp. xi–xx.

Victor Hugo

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1212

. . . Hernani was a great success, but this success was achieved only after as “battle” during which Hugo’s proponents, young members of the Romantic movement, systematically cheered the play and drowned out its opponents—literary conservatives— for the first week of its performance.

In the success following those first performances, Hugo neglected to give the option of first refusal to Gosselin, publisher of Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné, and in order to rectify this breach of contract, promised Gosselin a new novel for January 1831, thus agreeing to write a major work in less than a year. The July Revolution (1830), during which the Bourbon monarchy was replaced by the house of Orléans, interrupted this work, and Gosselin granted Hugo a short respite. The manuscript was published on 16 March; it was entitled Notre- Dame Paris.

The novel, set in Paris in [1482], recounts three men’s love and one woman’s hatred for a young Gypsy dancer, Esmeralda, who in turn loves a fourth man: the handsome soldier Phoebus. The men incarnate different classes of medieval society: Quasimodo, the cathedral’s hunchbacked bell ringer, represents the lower classes; Claude Frollo, the cathedral’s deacon and Quasimodo’s guardian, represents the clergy; Pierre Gringoire, an unappreciated author, is marginalized, as unable to participate in society as he is to consummate his marriage of convenience to Esmeralda. Complementing the three men is an old woman, Paquette Chantefleurie, whose baby was stolen years ago by Gypsies, and who has vowed an undying hatred for that group. Phoebus wins Esmeralda’s heart and, at the moment of fulfilling his passion for her, is struck by Frollo, but Esmeralda is the one who is charged with murder (even though Phoebus survives) and sorcery. Tried and convicted, Esmeralda is rescued by Quasimodo, only to fall into the hands of Paquette, who recognizes her as her long-lost daughter Agnès, but too late. Esmeralda is arrested again and hanged; Quasimodo, understanding Frollo’s role in this judicial murder, throws his master from the cathedral’s tower, only to wander off to Esmeralda’s pauper’s grave, and to die with her body in his arms.

The plot is undoubtedly both sentimental and melodramatic. The diabolical priest, the handsome, free-living soldier, and the devoted but deformed hunchback all spring from the repertory of popular fiction, and it is easy, reading for the plot alone, to dismiss the novel. Indeed, English critic John Ruskin was so outraged by Hugo’s portrait of his cherished medieval city that he labeled the book “disgusting.” Nonetheless, it was an immediate success, going into several editions in two years; the “eight” edition (published by Renduel) includes three chapters Hugo had withheld from Gosselin in hopes of raising the book’s price.

Critics agree that it is not the plot, but the evocation of the Middle Ages that constitutes the center of the novel’s interest, and the statement that the cathedral is its main character is of great validity. Two chapters in particular are singled out for praise: “Notre-Dame de Paris” and “Paris à vol d’oiseau” (A Bird’s-eye View of Paris). In the first Hugo claims to evoke the cathedral, not as it is in 1832, but as it was in 1482, before the ravages of time and man. Then, it was incomparably more beautiful than now, and if it has suffered through the centuries, it is not due to any weathering, but to revolutions, restorations, and changes of fashion. Notre-Dame appears as a worn masterpiece from another era, a work bridging two periods (Romanesque and Gothic), and bringing that sense of transition to the present day. The other chapter describes Paris as it was 350 years prior to the book’s publication and evokes the many quarters, churches, and monuments of the medieval city, its narrow confines and its outlying towns. Hugo opposes this vision to the more recent developments of Parisian geography and deplores the Renaissance and its effects. Just as time has damaged the cathedral, each century has taken with it much of Paris’s medieval beauty.

What becomes more apparent as one reads Notre- Dame de Paris is that its deep subject is decline: that of the cathedral and Paris, to be sure, but also that of the monarchy (in an often-noted scene, the king asks when his time will come), of architecture (Claude Frollo foretells the demise, with the advent of the printed book, of the cathedral as a source of knowledge), and of individual resolve (Frollo slowly gives in to his diabolical impulses). Hugo refers to this process as ‘ANÁΓKH, or fate: this is the word Frollo scratches on the wall when Esmeralda haunts his thoughts; this is the principle the priest invokes when, fascinated, he watches a fly perish in a spider’s web. The fly’s predicament symbolizes his own passion for Esmeralda as well as Esmeralda’s own inability to extricate herself from the judicial system, the cathedral’s demise in the web of printed words, and the monarchy’s futile struggle in the web of history. It is important here not to confuse fate with progress: to be sure, the decline of the monarchy or of superstition can be understood as the coming of a better order. The force that Hugo describes as “ ANÁΓKH, however, is blind, careless of whether it produces good or evil. Fate brings the printed book but also the guillotine; Frollo’s death but also Esmeralda’s; the end of monarchy but also revolution.

Even in this work “d’imagination, de caprice et de fantaisie” (of imagination, caprice, and fantasy), there is a strong current of social commentary, and the themes of judicial cruelty, of institutional blindness, and of social upheaval are never far from the surface. At the very moment that Louis XI’s Flemish visitor reassures him (ironically, in the fortress of the Bastille) that monarchy will last for some time to come, the criminal rabble of Paris is assaulting Notre-Dame—nominally the king’s responsibility to defend—and this violence must be put down with even more violence. When Esmeralda is tried for sorcery, she at first denies knowledge of the black art but, upon being tortured, confesses to having killed a man still alive and is condemned to death on the basis of this confession, citations from books of necromancy, and the testimony of her pet goat. The comedy of this trial only makes its tragic outcome more poignant. However one looks at the novel—from the point of view of its description, or its characterization, or its social commentary— Hugo tells a story of relentless fatalism, of a vanishing world’s resignation to its own disappearance.

When Notre-Dame de Paris, was published, Hugo’s friend Vigny expressed his pleasure at the novel. The poet Alphonse de Lamartine called its author “le Shakespeare du roman” (the Shakespeare of the novel) but faulted it for its insufficient expression of religious belief. Charles de Montalembert criticized it for the quality that Hugo deliberately sought in his plays: “ce mélange continuel du grotesque au tragique” (this continual mixture of the grotesque and the tragic). . . .

Source: Timothy Raser, “Victor Hugo,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 119, Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800–1860, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 164–92.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame


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