The Hunchback of Notre Dame Analysis

Victor Hugo

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Set in France during the reign of Louis XI, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a historical novel of epic proportions that appeals to a broad readership. Victor Hugo vividly re-creates the teeming Paris of the late Middle Ages, with its sharp roofs and narrow, muddy streets, as well as the people, customs, and pageantry of fifteenth century France. He also presents conflicts and themes that resonate with adults both young and old because they are at the core of the human condition.

The novel’s action is divided among a number of crucial days spread over six months (January to July), enhanced by fascinating short essays on various subjects ranging from alchemy to the future of architecture. If at first the narrative concentrates on Pierre Gringoire walking around Paris, it soon shifts to the other characters as Hugo describes in omniscient fashion or through authorial intrusions their thoughts and movements, which he often explains and compares in the light of modern events and ways of thinking, such as the Revolution of 1830 or the need to abolish the death penalty.

Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre Dame, had adopted some twenty years before an ugly and deformed infant found on Quasimodo Sunday (hence his name), whom he had reared within the confines of the cathedral. Now, in 1482, Frollo is involved in transforming base metals into gold through alchemy, and the hunchback has become the official bell-ringer. When the priest sees...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Notre Dame Cathedral

*Notre Dame Cathedral. Roman Catholic cathedral on Paris’s Ile de la Cite. The iconic presence of the cathedral dominates the novel, especially through the lives of Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre Dame, and Quasimodo, the cathedral’s deaf bell-ringer. The forces that control the ultimate tragedy of the story arise from the hopeless love of these two men for Esmeralda, the gypsy woman who is herself besotted with the unfaithful soldier, Phoebus de Châteaupers. Frollo’s love for Esmeralda would not drive him to such madness, were he not restrained by his clerical vow of celibacy. The Church separates him from women while his vocation continues his torment. When Frollo plots to have Esmeralda hanged if she will not love him, Quasimodo rescues her by hiding her in the cathedral, where she can claim sanctuary. So long as she remains there, she is safe, even during the violence of the beggars’ attack on the cathedral.

The public square in front of Notre Dame unites the cathedral with the people. As the main characters are drawn together there, it reflects through this coincidence the role of fate. After Frollo has Esmeralda sentenced to death, she must make penance in front of the cathedral before being executed. It is from the square that Quasimodo carries her away to the sanctuary of the church, but not before she sees Phoebus on a nearby balcony. This sight proves that Phoebus is not dead—although Esmeralda has been charged with killing him—and renews...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

King Louis XI
Louis XI (1423–83) was king (he was crowned in 1461) during the time of Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Gothic Novel
Typically, a gothic novel includes a dark setting preferably in an old castle; tension created through suspense;...

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Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1400s: France’s civil war, referred to as the Hundred Years’ War, begins in 1407.

1800s: Napoleon I, after...

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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Write a research paper on the construction of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Include descriptions of the architectural designs and how they...

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Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been produced as a movie several times, first in 1923, starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo; then in 1939,...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Some critics believe that Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) outshines The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The book exposes the struggles...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Porter, Laurence M., “Preface,” in Victor Hugo, Twayne Publisher, 1999, pp. vii–xviii.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

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.


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