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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Book 1, Chapters 1–6 | Summary



The book begins with a reference to a day that happened 348 years, 6 months, and 19 days ago. The narrator says nothing "noteworthy" happened on this day, and nothing has been written of its history. Church bells rang all over the city on this day because it was the twin celebration of Twelfth Night (which takes place on January 6th) and the Feast of Fools, which ends in an election of the "Pope of Fools." Shopkeepers close up shop in celebration, and people make their way to one of three events happening in the city: a bonfire, a maypole, and a mystery play. Most of the people flock to the mystery play at the great hall of the Palais de Justice (Palace of Justice), which was believed to be the largest covered enclosure in the world at the time. Still, people had a hard time getting in because the palace square was "packed with people, resembling a sea into which, like so many river-mouths, five or six streets were constantly disgorging fresh torrents of heads." The inside was even more crowded with onlookers, "content merely to gaze at the gazers."

In Chapter 1, the narrator tries to capture the impression the reader might experience upon crossing the threshold of the great hall, and describes in detail the architecture with Gothic vaulted ceilings, enormous pillars, rows of statues of all the kings of France, and marble floors. The narrator describes the staging for the mystery play that is to take place on a platform, and the special private entrance that has been prepared for visiting Flemish envoys and other important people. King Louis XIV's son is marrying a Flemish princess, so Paris is full of visiting envoys.

Most of the crowd have been waiting since morning, shivering in the cold palace in front of the stage waiting for the play to begin. They've grown tired and bored and uncomfortable, and fights are beginning to break out. One group of young men is causing mischief for their own amusement, harassing the master-furrier to the king and a university bookseller. The master-furrier and the bookseller commiserate about the behavior from the young men, and the master-furrier notes, "It's all those accursed new inventions that are ruining everything."

The clock finally strikes noon, the appointed time for the play to begin, but nothing happens and the crowd begins to grow angry. One of the students, Jehan, begins to incite the crowd, suggesting the execution of the palace bailiff and serjeants. The crowd moves toward them, and the serjeants look visibly nervous. But at that moment, an actor steps forward and calmness is restored. But the actor only announces the delay of the play because they are waiting for the Lord Cardinal to arrive before they can begin.

The audience begins heckling the actor in Chapter 2, demanding the play begin right away. A figure in black appears on the stage and instructs the actor to begin the play, and the audience cheers. The figure identifies himself to a few curious women in the audience as Pierre Gringoire, the author of the play. The play begins, an allegory about nobility, clergy, commerce, and tillage, but it is soon interrupted by one of the students shouting to point out a beggar perched on top of a nearby pillar. They play continues after Gringoire, seething, shouts at the actors to continue. But it is interrupted once more by the arrival of the Lord Cardinal of Bourbon in Chapter 3.

In Chapter 4, a hosier, Maître Jacques Coppenole, arrives to join the cardinal and Flemish assembly, and begins speaking to the homeless man nearby, begging for alms. The cardinal, not understanding the commotion but seeing the beggar, instructs the palace bailiff to "throw this scoundrel into the river." Coppenole defends the beggar, claiming that he is a friend of his, which wins Coppenole respect from the crowd.

Meanwhile, Gringoire is urging his actors—who have paused—to start the play over from the beginning, but the audience's attention is held by the cardinal and the Flemish assembly. The cardinal instructs them to pick up where they left off, but Flemish envoys continue to arrive, with the usher interrupting the play to introduce each one by name. The play now seems doomed because the audience is paying more attention to the new arrivals.

Finally, Maître Coppenole stands up and announces that the play is horrible, boring, and not what he was promised. He proposes, instead, a "face-pulling" (making ugly faces) contest to elect the next fools' pope instead. In an instant, Coppenole's proposal is put into effect, and the competition is held in a small chapel across from the stage.

The contest begins in Chapter 5, drawing laughter at all the bizarre faces being made by the contestants who appear one by one in the window to be judged, resembling "a human kaleidoscope." The fools' pope is elected, one man having given the ugliest face in the contest. But when the contestant emerges, the audience realizes that, in fact, his entire face and body are deformed, "like a giant broken in pieces and badly reassembled." The audience recognizes him instantly as Quasimodo the bell-ringer and hunchback of Notre-Dame. Insults and rumors are shouted about him all throughout the hall. Quasimodo is finally lifted into a litter and carried throughout the palace before parading the streets.

Gringoire attempts to continue the play, relieved when Quasimodo and the noisy crowd leave the hall to parade the streets. However, the hall is now mostly empty, and even his orchestra has left to accompany the parade. Suddenly one of the remaining youths shouts that "La Esmeralda" has arrived in the square to dance. At the end of Chapter 6, one of them absconds with the play's ladder in order to better see Esmeralda, effectively ending the play.


Victor Hugo had already written a number of successful plays before he wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Some of the effects of his playwriting are evident in the opening of the novel—he introduces his main characters on the periphery, letting us see them in action rather than inside of their thoughts. The reader's introduction to Quasimodo focuses on his appearance, as well as how the crowd reacts to it, telling us in detail how "his whole person was a grimace." Yet the reader is given a glimpse into Quasimodo's emotions through the description of his face—a "crowning mixture of malice, astonishment, and sadness." It's significant that Hugo chose to make Quasimodo the "tragic hero" of the novel. Because he is not from the upper class of Parisian society, Hugo breaks tradition by making the protagonist a disfigured, poor, church-bell-ringing commoner.

With Quasimodo—as well as Pierre Gringoire, the playwright, and Jehan Frollo, a student in the crowd—Hugo gives a bird's-eye view, similar to a camera panning over a large setting and zooming in on certain individuals in the crowd at will, letting readers know where to direct their focus. In 1826, just a few years before Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the first record of movement in pictures took place thanks to the camera obscura; this may have influenced Hugo's writing style. Hugo also introduces the reader to the ceremonies and public festivals of 15th-century France, with an emphasis on the delight and anticipation of citizens surrounding them. Ceremony and ritual play a large part in these celebrations, as witnessed by the incessant bell ringing and ceaseless announcements of arriving envoys. The narrator depicts the crowd as rowdy, impatient, and boisterous, as well as easily distracted.

Many scholars consider The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be a historical novel because Hugo makes great strides to keep everything from dates to architectural details historically accurate. Even the dialogue, phrases, and references the characters make resemble the way people in the medieval era would have spoken. Hugo's detailed architectural description of the Palace of Justice introduces the theme of architecture that plays a large role in the novel. This focus on architecture also symbolizes the nostalgia that Hugo felt for not only Gothic art but for the bygone historical era as well. As the university bookseller laments to the king's master-furrier, "It's all those accursed new inventions that are ruining everything."

Hugo was greatly interested in France's contemporary politics, having witnessed a recent revolution. In many ways, he uses France's medieval past to comment on the pressing issues of his time, such as the church and the king. In Hugo's time, medieval history was largely scoffed at and considered barbaric, and through The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he wished to disabuse his contemporaries of that notion and consider the merits of its art, society, and architecture. Hugo is slowly adding the elements needed to build the layered context in the novel. He weaves together an appreciation for the High Middle Age's accomplishment of the cathedral, unsurpassed in modern times, and also the loss of the cathedral's religious significance and the parallel with French society, religion, and politics of his contemporary time.

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