Themes

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1058

Abandonment
The theme of abandonment plays out in different ways in Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The most obvious is the abandonment of Quasimodo by his mother, who steals the more beautiful child, La Esmeralda, and exchanges her malformed son, who is left in the halls of the cathedral. And that is just the beginning of abandonment in Quasimodo’s life. The public abandons him in many ways, mocking and jeering him every time he appears outside his cloistered shelter. In more subtle ways, some of his physical senses also abandon him, leaving him without the power to hear or speak, pushing him deeper into isolation.

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The priest Frollo and his brother Jehan are also abandoned by the death of their parents; as is Gringoire, another orphan in this story. On another level, all the poor of Paris are portrayed as having also been abandoned by the fabulously rich monarchy which has grown out of touch with not only the needs of the poverty stricken populous but with its subjects’ humanity. This theme of abandonment makes the loyalty of Quasimodo and La Esmeralda all the more intense by contrast.

Physical Appearance
The theme of the power of physical appearance in affecting others is played out at its fullest in the characters of Quasimodo and La Esmeralda. Quasimodo is scorned, mocked, abandoned, ridiculed, and beaten for having been born in a twisted body. Whereas La Esmeralda is loved, lusted after, praised, and celebrated for her innate beauty. It is, however, interesting to note that neither Quasimodo’s ugliness nor La Esmeralda’s beauty grants a better outcome. Although Quasimodo must seek refuge in isolation because of his physical appearance, La Esmeralda suffers from the jealousy of others when she exhibits herself in public.

Disguise of one’s physical appearance is also used throughout Hugo’s story. Frollo often tries to disguise himself either in a common cloak or in the clothing of his priesthood. His cloak is used to give him an advantage in getting closer to La Esmeralda, who has resolved to resist him. But his priestly habit, if one takes the highest ideals of spirituality that his religious outfit represents, also disguises Frollo’s carnal lust.

Obsession
There are many men who want to be close to La Esmeralda. Each man has his own reasons. Of all of them, Quasimodo and Frollo have the strongest desires, and those desires are born from opposite feelings. Quasimodo is sincerely in love with La Esmeralda. He demonstrates this by his ability to satisfy her needs without receiving anything in return. He wants to be able to look at her, but he turns his head so she will not have to see his ugliness. He serves her and then leaves her alone. He protects her although he knows that she does not love him.

By contrast, Frollo is obsessed with La Esmeralda. Or more precisely, he is obsessed with the thought of her. He really does not know her. He is merely aroused by her beauty, by her female form, how she moves, how she laughs, and as a result he wants to own her. His obsession drives him away from his own rational thoughts and his vows of spirituality. His lofty ideals are corrupted by his carnal desires, and he will do anything, even break his God’s commandments, to possess her. His obsession controls his body and his mind, pointing him in the direction of the darkest evil rather than toward the spiritual light. He, who is dressed in the garb of the priest, Hugo seems to be saying, is really the devil. While Quasimodo, who has been accused of being the devil because of his physical garb, is more like a saint.

Intolerance
Intolerance abounds in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The most obvious is the intolerance that surrounds Quasimodo. From his birth to his death, people cannot bear to look at him let alone to be around him without mocking him. Even when he is in a court of law, the judge is so prejudiced by Quasimodo’s looks, he has no tolerance of Quasimodo’s inability to hear and therefore to express himself. The judge mistakenly believes that Quasimodo is acting disrespectfully instead of realizing that Quasimodo’s communication skills are limited.

The king also demonstrates intolerance when he hears there is an uprising among his people. He, as well as the people who report to him, believe that the uprising is against the king. Rather than attempting to find out why the people are revolting, the king, almost like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, in essence shouts out, Off with their heads. There is also the general intolerance against the gypsies who are accused of every crime from theft to sorcery, whether or not they have committed them.

Betrayal
Quasimodo portrays the most sincere form of loyalty and is therefore the most sympathetic character to experience betrayal. Since Frollo is the only person who shows any signs of affection toward him, Quasimodo would do anything for his master. Frollo asks him to kidnap La Esmeralda, and Quasimodo does so, neither understanding the motives nor the consequences. But when Quasimodo is tried and convicted of a crime whose penalty is a severe beating, he does comprehend that he does not deserve that punishment. He is not the perpetrator of that crime, since he has only followed the dictates of his beloved Frollo. But Frollo’s loyalty is nowhere near as exemplary as Quasimodo’s, and although he sees his adopted child suffering unjustly, Frollo does not come to Quasimodo’s defense.

Moreover, it is Frollo again, who exhibits another lethal form of betrayal in another circumstance, this time with La Esmeralda, when he stabs Phoebus and allows La Esmeralda to pay with her life for this crime. Phoebus, too, is guilty of betrayal when he pretends to love La Esmeralda only to win a few hours of physical passion. He watches as La Esmeralda is about to be hanged for a crime that he knows she did not commit. La Esmeralda, herself, or rather her blind love of Phoebus, betrays her own safety when she comes out of hiding upon hearing Phoebus’ voice. Believing Phoebus loves her, she in essence turns herself in to those who want to see her dead.

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