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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.

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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 the gypsy girl Esmeralda dance on the public square, he is so struck by her beauty, gracefulness, and innocent sensuality that he has Quasimodo kidnap her. After she is rescued by the handsome Captain Phoebus, she falls in love with him, while Quasimodo is publicly punished, much to the crowd’s enjoyment. Only Esmeralda takes pity on the young wretch and gives him water to drink, awakening eternal feelings of gratitude and adoration in Quasimodo.

Unable to overcome his obsession with Esmeralda, Frollo follows her to a tryst with Phoebus and wounds him—a crime for which Esmeralda is accused and sentenced to death. Frollo promises to save her, however, if she agrees to love him, but she refuses. Rescued at the last minute by Quasimodo, she is whisked inside the cathedral (a medieval sanctuary) and devotedly watched over by him. During the night, in an exciting chapter, her friends—the seething, frightening underclass of thieves and cutthroats—attack the cathedral in a vain attempt to free her, in a scene reminiscent of the storming of the Bastille in 1789. After Frollo tricks Esmeralda into leaving her refuge, he again offers her the choice between himself and death, and again she chooses death. She is therefore turned over to the authorities and hanged. Quasimodo, realizing at last his protector’s involvement, hurls Frollo off a tower of the cathedral and then, observing the bodies of both Esmeralda and his master, cries, “Oh, all that I ever loved!”

In a few paragraphs, Hugo mentions King Louis’ death the following year, Gringoire’s literary success, and Phoebus’ marriage.

Places Discussed

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*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 Esmeralda’s hope that Phoebus will return to her. Phoebus sees Esmeralda just at the moment he is swearing to another woman that she, Esmeralda, means nothing to him. The square weaves together the multiple relationships that control the characters.

*Place de la Grève

*Place de la Grève (plahz deh lah grehv). Public square on which Quasimodo is applauded as Prince of Fools and where he must serve time in the pillory for his role in Frollo’s attack on Esmeralda. The Place de la Grève also contains the gallows where Esmeralda is destined to be hanged. Hugo would have been especially aware that this square was later named Place de la Concorde to erase the memories of the guillotine it had held during the French Revolution.

*Palace of Justice

*Palace of Justice. Great hall in which the novel opens, when a crowd gathers to choose a Prince of Fools at the same time a morality play is being presented. The palace is later the scene of the trials of both Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Quasimodo is interrogated even though he is deaf and unable to understand what is being asked. Esmeralda is tortured until she confesses. Both are condemned in proceedings that show both the power and the fallibility of the law. The role of the Palace of Justice is ambiguous in the novel, just as the concept of justice in the novel seems quite variable.

Court of Miracles

Court of Miracles. Courtyard close to other places of action that serves as a refuge for the beggars who display artificially contrived wounds or disabilities in order to beg money in the streets. The “miracles” refer to what happens when they return to their own territory and suddenly can walk normally. This courtyard represents the people of the street, Esmeralda’s people, who as gypsies or other marginal characters make a living as best they can. When Esmeralda is in danger, these people rally to her defense, just as Esmeralda comes to the defense of Gringoire by offering to marry him so he will be accepted by her people. The solidarity of this group sets itself against the forces of authority when the beggars attack the cathedral.

Historical Context

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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 Dame. His reign was characterized by diminished prestige of the courts, intervention in the affairs of the church, and imposition of heavy taxes to support a powerful army. Louis XI tended to turn away from nobility, preferring the common man in his ranks. The nobility, in turn, tried several times to dethrone him. But the lesser gentry and the bourgeois classes, with whom Louis had won favor, refused to revolt against him. His reign, however, was filled with battles for land and power. He had many political enemies, many of whom were imprisoned in very poor conditions for long periods. In the latter years of his reign, Louis feared for his life. He sensed he might be assassinated. For this reason, during the last two years of his monarchy, Louis hid, in selfexile, in Touraine. He died in 1483 of cerebral arteriosclerosis. He was succeeded by his son, Charles VIII.

Cathedral of Notre Dame
Construction on the cathedral of Notre Dame was at least in the planning stages in 1160, when Maurice du Sully envisioned its design. The cornerstone was laid three years later. The original design was Romanesque. But the cathedral was built in three stages, and before it was completed, advances in architectural design allowed more freedom in how weight in large buildings could be supported and walls opened in to let in light. As construction continued, the cathedral design was increasing affected by the new gothic style. This style can be seen in the ribbed vaults (arched ribs that support the nave ceiling) and flying buttresses (arched supports built outside the nave walls that direct the weight of the roof outward along the ribs and down the buttresses outside the church, thus relieving the foundation of weight and making possible a higher vault in the nave). Because the weight was channeled this way, the wall space between the buttresses could be opened up with stained glass windows. The gothic cathedral also had ornate spires and ornate exterior sculpture. On the roof top, sculpted gargoyles symbolically were intended to scare away devils but practically functioned as downspouts. The gothic style was magnificent, and under the financial support of King Louis VII, the cathedral located on an island in the Seine River, rose in grandeur, the pride of Paris. The church was completed between 1250 and 1300 but went through major reconstructions thereafter. Over the years, the cathedral was the site of many coronations and royal weddings.

During the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV (late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) some of the cathedral’s tombs and stained glass windows were destroyed. At the end of the eighteenth century, revolutionaries plundered many of its valuables. Gradually the great building deteriorated, but major restoration programs in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries restored it.

The term gypsy was applied to a group of nomadic people, more properly known as Roma, who were believed, according to linguistic research, to have their origins in northwest India. There are historical records that indicate that the Roma lived in Arabic, Byzantine, and Persian countries as well as all over Europe. They first appeared in Europe in the 1400s. Wherever they went, they were considered outsiders and were often persecuted. Some countries enslaved them; others used them for entertainment, music and dancing being two of their gifts. Harsh laws against them often deterred their travels. In 1502, King Louis XII banished all gypsies from France. Even more severe, in Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) actually signed a law that stated gypsies could be hanged just for being gypsies. During the Nazi control of Germany, large groups of Roma were tortured and killed along with the Jewish population. Although people of Roma descent can be found all around the world, the largest populations of Roma are found in Russia and in Hungary.

Napoleon III
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808–1873) reigned during Hugo’s life, and after returning from exile after the French Revolution of 1848, Napoleon III won the presidency and served as leader of the Second Republic. Then in 1851, he overthrew the Second Republic and gave himself dictatorial powers. A year later, he named himself ruler of France’s Second Empire. He ruled France with a tight fist but also invested a lot of money in rebuilding the country. He was responsible for building railroads and authorizing the first banks. His strict rule led to his unpopularity among his citizens, so he attempted to liberalize his government, giving his general assembly broader powers. This measure did not, however, save him. His downfall resulted from his ambitions to be a great military leader, like his uncle, Napoleon I. In 1870, after taking to the battlefield during the Franco-Prussian war, he was captured by the Prussians and declared by his citizens at home to be dethroned by the thenauthoritative powers of the Third Republic in Paris. Napoleon III died in exile in 1873 in Great Britain where he was buried.

Literary Style

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Gothic Novel
Typically, a gothic novel includes a dark setting preferably in an old castle; tension created through suspense; the appearance of mysterious signs that act as warnings or prophecy; the stirring of strong emotions; and of course a threatened woman in need of rescue. Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame contains all of these elements and more. First there is the gothic cathedral of Notre Dame with its castle-like structure and embellishments of gargoyles, dark shadowy staircases, towers, and hidden rooms. This setting emphasizes mystery and foreboding. Then there is the constant flow of emotions, including despair, brief happiness, surprise, shock, disappointment, and fear. Finally there is La Esmeralda, the beautiful woman in distress.

Hugo also includes elements of the irrational, such as sorcery, black magic, alchemy, obsession, and devilry. He even adds a bit of prophecy or omen when he has Frollo write the word ANAÃKH on the wall of his room. The word means fate and reflects both the gripping effects from which the characters appear unable to free themselves as well as the derivative form of the word, which is fatality, thus making the word a prophecy of the short time remaining for Hugo’s main characters. As in other gothic novels, mystery abounds in Hugo’s novel, too, from the unknown parentages of many of the characters to the motivation of Frollo who seems bent on fouling the lives of Quasimodo and La Esmeralda. The overwhelming power of the male is also present, another gothic ingredient. From the king, who has the power to execute anyone who disagrees with his thoughts, to Phoebus, who takes what pleasure he can find in women without caring about them in return, to Frollo, who exerts his power over both Quasimodo and La Esmeralda.

If one were to sum up the overall theme of Hugo’s novel, it would be easy to refer to it as a melodramatic tragedy. A tragedy is a work that shows a conflict between an individual and a higher force that ends badly for the individual. There is the tragic form of Quasimodo that makes his life a living hell. There is the tragic figure of La Esmeralda, whose beauty should have given her easy access to a life of love but instead gives her nothing but disappointment and suffering. In Frollo, readers witness a tragic flaw—his inability to control his lust—which eventually destroys his life. The tragedy of poverty is also provided in regard to the masses of people going hungry while grand feasts and opulence of every kind are enjoyed inside the monarch’s hall. And then there is Pacquette, who is driven mad after the theft of her beautiful baby girl, only to be reunited with her in the last moments of both of their lives. The book ends with misguided, bloody battles, murders, and executions, and the most tragic image of all—that of Quasimodo’s skeletal remains wrapped around his dead beloved.

Privileging the Outcast
Quasimodo reflects the romantic tendency to privilege the outcast (the ugly, powerless, common) while discounting the heads of hierarchy. In a sense, Quasimodo is something of the “noble savage,” one who exhibits higher virtue and greater compassion than the so-called leaders of the society, a figure that appears repeatedly in nineteenth-century romantic literature.

Complexity and Elaboration
Hugo’s style is filled with very long, highly descriptive passages. For instance, he might, in the midst of describing a scene, point out the curvatures of scroll-topped columns in the architecture of the room in which the scene is being played out. He also provides long digressions about the history of a building or a place. Extended flashbacks present backgrounds for some characters, and some chapters are devoted to his personal philosophies, such as the discussion on the potential effect of the printing presses. He describes the cathedral of Notre Dame in fine detail, as well as the buildings in the surrounding area and the view of the city from one of the cathedral’s towers. Modern readers may be impatient with this elaborate style, accustomed as they are to quick camera shots in movies and the scaled down writing of popular twentieth-century and early 2000s narrative styles. But it is through Hugo’s extensive details that readers are given a deeper understanding of the life and times of fifteenth-century Paris. His attention to detail provides a lot of information beyond the plot of the novel, particularly regarding the setting, background, and fifteenth-century topics.

Compare and Contrast

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

1800s: Napoleon I, after victorious battles across Europe, establishing a vast French Empire, is defeated at Waterloo.

2000s: President Jacques Chirac refuses to join the coalition in support of the U.S. pre-emptive military strike on Iraq.

1400s: Anti-gypsy laws are enforced throughout most of Europe, making it a crime for the Roma people to live in such countries as Britain, Holland, and Germany. Spain tries gypsies as heretics.

1800s: Gypsies come to the United States to flee European discrimination, but many are turned back at Ellis Island.

2000s: Norway’s largest religious group, the Lutherans, officially apologizes for its role in past discrimination against the gypsies.

1400s: The influence of Italian Renaissance art is imposed on French gothic architecture after Charles VIII returns from his conquest of Naples.

1800s: While King Louis XV (who is crowned when he is only five years old) matures, Phillipe d’Orleans supervises the French government and influences art and architecture in France with an emphasis on individualism.

2000s: Many modern French architects vow to renew Paris and its urban setting with buildings that break out of the box form and incorporate triangle shapes or a fragmented layout.

Media Adaptations

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been produced as a movie several times, first in 1923, starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo; then in 1939, starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. In 1977, a British production starred Anthony Hopkins in the same role, and finally the Disneymade version appeared in 1996. There are books on tape, DVDs, and toys and games that use Hugo’s original work as their inspiration.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Robb, Graham, Victor Hugo: A Biography, Norton, 1997.

Further Reading
Baguley, David, Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza, Louisiana State University Press, 2000. In this book, readers meet Napoleon III who dismantled France’s republic and took it upon himself to establish a dictatorship. This nephew of the more famous Bonaparte lived in his uncle’s shadow but tried desperately to outshine him.

Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain, Notre-Dame de Paris, Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Critics highly recommend a slow reading of this beautiful book that portrays the long history and the architectural accomplishments of one of the Middle Age’s most magnificent buildings.

Kelly, Linda, The Young Romantics: Victor Hugo, Sainte- Beuve, Vigny, Dumas, Musset, and George Sand and Their Friendships, Feuds, and Loves in the French Romantic Revolution, Random House, 1976. Kelly provides a good background study of the early authors of the French Romantic Movement.

Yors, Jan, The Gypsies, Waveland Press, 1989. When he was only twelve years old, Jan Yors ran away from his home in Belgium and lived with a group of gypsies, following them from one country to another, learning their culture from the inside. This book has won praise from the critics for its first-hand account of life with one group of gypsies.


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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.

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