Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487
Through a series of tales of thwarted love, the novel reveals a tragic story of medieval Paris. The deformed Quasimodo, befriended by the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, Frollo, falls in love with the gypsy dancer, Esmeralda, who in turn is enamored of the aristocratic soldier, Phoebus, who once saved her life. Frollo, demented by his study of alchemy and the black arts, lusts after the dancer, too, and stabs Phoebus when the two lovers meet, allowing Esmeralda to take the blame. Destined for a public hanging, she is saved by Quasimodo, who carries her into the sanctuary of the cathedral. There he manages to fight off the mob of Paris, who, believing the gypsy is a witch, demand her death. Frollo, however, betrays Esmeralda to the crowd, and she is hanged. In revenge, Quasimodo throws the priest to his death from one of the towers of Notre Dame, after which the hunchback disappears from Paris. His whereabouts remain a mystery until years later, when, in a search of the vault where criminals were once buried, the bones of a disfigured man are found wrapped around the disintegrated corpse of a woman dressed as the gypsy.
It is not difficult to account for the popularity of this tale. The carefully drawn picture of the underworld of Paris, the various love triangles which interlock the classes and estates of the medieval world--all this provides a rich fictional tapestry. It is the tragic figure of Quasimodo, however, that gives the novel its mythic resonance, and his relationship with the gypsy forms the emotional center of the book, rescuing it from the banality of the conventional 19th century romance.
Brombert, Victor. Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. An insightful analysis of the visionary qualities in Victor Hugo’s major novels. Examines Hugo’s artistry in describing events from several different perspectives in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Grant, Richard B. The Perilous Quest: Image, Myth, and Prophecy in the Narratives of Victor Hugo. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968. Examines Hugo’s creative use of myths and religious images in his novels. Discusses the importance of medieval legends to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Grossman, Kathryn M. The Early Novels of Victor Hugo: Towards a Poetics of Harmony. Geneva: Droz, 1986. Contains a thoughtful study of Hugo’s first four novels. The chapter on The Hunchback of Notre Dame explores images of women and family relationships in the novel.
Houston, John Porter. Victor Hugo. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Contains an excellent general introduction to Hugo’s works and an annotated bibliography of important critical studies on Hugo. Discusses images of Paris and the importance of medievalism in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Maurois, André. Olympio: The Life of Victor Hugo. Translated by Gerard Hopkins. New York: Harper, 1956. A well-documented biography of Hugo. Describes well the role of fate and images of Christianity in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.