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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Book 5, Chapters 1–2 | Summary



At the beginning of Chapter 1, Claude Frollo receives an unexpected visit one evening from the king's physician, Jacques Coictier, and his companion, a stranger. Claude humors the physician with compliments and pleasantries, and finally Coictier introduces his companion as a colleague, Compère Tourangeau, who wished to meet Claude and ask him for medical advice. Claude dismisses his request, as he doesn't believe in medicine, and Coictier whispers to his companion that he warned him Claude was "a madman." Tourangeau asks Claude what he does believe in, and Claude replies in Latin that he believes in God. Claude admits that when it comes to science, he only believes in alchemy. Tourangeau asks Claude which books he studies from, and Claude gestures to the church itself and says, "here is one of them." Finally, he points to a book on his table and sighs, saying books will "kill" the church someday. With this, Coictier and Tourangeau agree that Claude is indeed mad. But Tourangeau is impressed by Claude and reveals himself to be none other than King Louis XI. He asks Claude to come visit him, which expands Claude's influence over the king.

The narrator pauses the story in Chapter 2 to examine Claude's claim that "the book will kill the building." He believes that Claude is alarmed by the development of the printing press, meaning that people will no longer need to go through priests in order to access information and a path to God. It means for Claude "the press will kill the church." Yet in another sense, Claude also seems to believe that the art of the book will kill the art of architecture, because up until this point "architecture was the great book of mankind," able to express all of a civilization's beliefs, and it evolved alongside the human mind, mirroring its breakthroughs and deaths. The narrator believes that this is because each generation wants "to move others, and to leave some trace," or influence. Buildings are also harder to destroy than books, and so their influence can be more enduring. But in the 15th century, everything changed, because humans discovered a way to disseminate information and influence on a wider scale—with books—and so "architecture was dethroned." The invention of books also changed the way that humans expressed themselves. With books, information was now ubiquitous, or ever-present, a living thing. Because of the ease of creating a book, the narrator finds it no surprise that humans have abandoned architecture for the printing press, which has produced a new "Tower of Babel" of human knowledge.


It's not surprising that Claude Frollo would have established a reputation among other scholars and physicians for his wealth of knowledge, but it is surprising that the king himself would pay him a visit in order to seek medical advice. The king's physician clearly sees Claude's ideas as far-fetched and crazy, calling him a "madman." But his dismissal of Claude reveals that the physician may be jealous of Claude's knowledge, particularly because the king is so impressed by his ideas and takes him on as an adviser.

The interaction between Claude, the king, and the king's physician serves in large part to introduce the author's ideas about the history and influence of architecture and its death at the hands of the printing press. Through Claude, the narrator expresses the anxiety that goes with change; books having replaced architecture as the main form of human expression and influence. Once upon a time, a building expressed the story of its particular civilization and other arts grew alongside to support it, such as painting and sculpture, so "during the world's first six thousand years ... architecture was the great script of the human race." And though a building is as immovable as a mountain, its size is also its downfall; it can be destroyed and doesn't have far-reaching effects. Books, on the other hand, are easy to make and easy to spread from one place to the next, so their influence is greater.

Hugo uses this chapter to establish the novel as a history as much as it is fiction, providing philosophical commentary at length on the architecture of different civilizations and how they mirrored the growth of each particular society. And while the narrator laments the loss of architecture as the main form of communication through art, he acknowledges that the birth of the printing press ushered the world and humanity into a new, modern era in which information and ideas are easier to access. He notes that "the human mind discovered a means of perpetuating itself which was ... more lasting and resistant than architecture."

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