The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (original: Notre-Dame de Paris) was written by Victor Hugo. Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885) is seen as France’s greatest lyric poet and the giant of nineteenth century French letters. Today he is known for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Misérables, and La Légende des Siècle, his masterpiece.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is about Esmeralda, a beautiful Romany girl. Esmeralda is loved by three men: Quasimodo, the brutish, hunchbacked ringer of the bells of the Cathedral of Notre Dame; Claude Frollo, a priest who changes, in the course of the novel, from severe and grave but essentially humane to diabolical; and Pierre Gringoire, an outcast writer and the most annoying character in the novel. Esmeralda, for her part, loves the handsome soldier Phoebus, who saves her life from a gang of thieves and from Quasimodo (in a case of mistaken motives) and in so doing wins her heart. Esmeralda holds Pierre Gringoire at arm’s length, not seeing him as particularly worthy. Esmeralda dislikes Claude Frollo, and her dislike deepens into fear and hatred as Frollo increasingly succumbs to temptation. Esmeralda is initially afraid of Quasimodo, but after he rescues her from a mob and he hides her in the Cathedral and brings her food, she treats him a little kindly. But she is in love with Phoebus, and although Quasimodo is obviously smitten with her she is oblivious to this and is unconsciously cruel to Quasimodo about her love for Phoebus. Phoebus, for his part, wants Esmeralda only for sex and thinks little of her otherwise. It all ends badly, with Frollo betraying Esmeralda to the police and then watching and laughing as she is hanged. The outraged Quasimodo pushes Frollo off the Cathedral from a great height and watches him die. Quasimodo’s body is found years later clutching Esmeralda’s skeleton.
Critics usually count Les Misérables and the poetry collection Les Contemplations as Hugo’s best work, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame was enormously popular in Hugo’s lifetime and remains an interesting read. It is a sprawling novel, almost overstuffed with information about life in Paris in the fifteenth century. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a cornucopia of characters and places and vivid portrayals of both. Quasimodo is the character most often recalled from this novel, but he is not the main character in the novel. That is the Cathedral itself, and Paris is nearly as central a character to the story as the Cathedral. Although Hugo is interested in telling the story of Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Claude Frollo, and Phoebus, he is just as interested in relating the history of Paris and what it was like in the twelfth century, in describing the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris at its height, in social commentary, in using characters as metaphors for different social classes, and in expressing the theme of decay, whether of the Cathedral, Paris, architecture, or the monarchy itself.
Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame while under the influence of Walter Scott (see: Rob Roy, Waverley), but Hugo took a much different approach to his subject than Scott did and produced a substantially different novel than anything Scott wrote or was capable of writing. Scott’s emphasis on a wide and shallow description of characters in the middle of history’s procession has been replaced with a narrow but deep examination of both characters and landscape during one brief moment in time. Hugo did an enormous amount of research for Notre Dame, exhaustively searching through the available historical documentation, and the final result is a vivid recreation of Paris during the fifteenth century. Hugo’s Paris is as alive as any city in fiction, from the beggars to the soldiers and from the alleys to the top of the Cathedral.
But the attention to Paris and the Cathedral is also the novel’s largest flaw. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is almost too full of information. The pages seem to groan under the weight of all the facts and information about medieval Paris which Hugo has put into the novel. Hugo’s purpose in writing Notre Dame seems to have been to combine a panoramic view of the history of the Cathedral and of Paris with a love story. But Hugo was clearly more interested in making Paris and the Cathedral into characters than in making Esmeralda and the rest of the cast come alive. Each of the main characters get their own chapters, and the novel tells a series of rotating stories about each character, but Hugo’s characterization of each is much shallower than his characterization of the Cathedral. Hugo’s digressions into the history and architecture of the Cathedral, into the way the Cathedral has developed a character over time, and the influence the Cathedral has on the personalities of those around it, are clearly far more interesting to him than the interactions of the human characters.
Hugo does invest most of the novel with an acute consciousness not just of history but also of class. He focuses on the miseries of the poor and how the justice system of the time mistreated accused criminals, who had no rights under the law. But those socially-conscious moments are few compared to the longueurs featuring Esmeralda, Claude Frollo, and the other main characters. Quasimodo is compelling, in his way, but there are far too many dry infodumps, the sections devoted to the Cathedral hang together poorly with the sections involving the other characters, and Hugo’s style does not create affection for most of the cast or even create much interest in their fates.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame played a role in the nineteenth century French “discovery of the Middle Ages via architecture,”1 turning French attention to the state of surviving medieval architecture in Paris. And certainly the reader, having read The Hunchback of Notre Dame, will be eager to visit the Cathedral. But the truth is most readers will be happy to have read The Hunchback of Notre Dame once, but few will want to return to it.
Print: Victor Hugo and John Sturrock, Notre-Dame of Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). New York: Penguin Classics, 1978.
1 R. Howard Bloch, “Restoration from Notre-Dame de Paris to Gaston Paris,” in Patrick J. Geary and Gábor Klaniczay, eds., Manufacturing Middle Ages: Entangled History of Medievalism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 281.