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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Book 3, Chapters 1–2 | Summary



The narrator describes the church of Notre-Dame in great detail in Chapter 1, and he conveys feelings of indignation at the "numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have wrought ... on this venerable monument." His praise of its architecture and style extends beyond the church itself and on to medieval Gothic architecture as a whole, "which originated in itself." The narrator also describes the church as being so large and overwhelming as to inspire terror in its visitors.

According to the narrator, the "ruin" of the church can be attributed to three things: time, political and religious revolutions, and architectural fashions—the last of which he believes has done the most damage. It is also "a building of transition," documenting the changes between Roman and Gothic architecture; it can be read as a reflection of France's history, science, and art. The narrator points out that buildings like the church of Notre-Dame take centuries to complete, and their architecture is often transformed while they are still being constructed.

One of the biggest changes in the cathedral from the 15th to the 19th century was its view of Paris from the top of its towers, from which one could see "the big, the small, the massive, and the ethereal." Paris at that time was already large in size, and the narrator uses this information in Chapter 2 to offer a detailed history of the evolution and growth of the city since its beginnings. The narrator describes how the city was laid out during the 15th century, with three distinct parts—the city, the university, and the town. The architecture of the city was mainly set in the Roman and Gothic styles, which later gave way to the Renaissance style, which the narrator laments "is being erased every day."


Book 3 finds Hugo developing both the church of Notre-Dame and the city of Paris into settings every bit as rich as the book's characters. The narrator doesn't shy away from critiquing and condemning the ways in which architecture has changed since the 15th century, arguing that the hodgepodge of styles that have fallen in and out of fashion since then have diluted the beauty of both the city and the church. When Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the mid-19th century, the church of Notre-Dame had fallen into disrepair due to damage inflicted from the recent revolutions. But Hugo, writing as a Romantic, took up the cathedral as a symbol of France's forgotten history. For him, Notre-Dame symbolized the entirety of the country's long history, and "each stone of this venerable monument is a page not only of our country's history, but also of the history of science and architecture." In this light, it can be seen as a symbol of the country's unity. The Hunchback of Notre Dame had a profound influence on the way Hugo's contemporaries saw the forgotten cathedral, sparking a full-scale restoration in the years after the book was published.

Hugo's detailed description of the city of Paris as seen from the long-gone medieval towers of Notre-Dame places the cathedral not only in a central character role but a geographical one as well. To stand in the tower was to be able to see every aspect of the city from a bird's-eye view, and even though Hugo's details are exhaustive, he manages to cast the city into a living, breathing role as well. His description of the sounds of its ringing church bells paints the city as one pulsing organism, the sound of "the town singing." Yet for all of his praise of the history of the city and Notre-Dame, Hugo's descriptions also serve as a cautionary tale for the future, because "since then, this great town has gone on being disfigured day by day." The Paris that Hugo paints is disappearing quickly, he warns, and future generations will likely never even know of its existence.

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