The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Book 6, Chapters 1–5 | Summary



The narrator notes that the year 1842 found many appointments and dismissals of posts by the king, Louis XI, who was "intent on preserving the elasticity of his power." The narrator describes in detail one such appointment, that of Robert d'Estouteville, who became the king's Provost of Paris. The action in Chapter 1 focuses on this particular January morning, the day after the festivals, when Robert found himself in an awful mood that the narrator hints is because he is an ill-tempered man in general. He is also meant to preside as a judge over Quasimodo's hearing at the Grand Châtelet, which has begun without him. In the audience is Jehan Frollo, who provides a running commentary on the action to his friend.

Quasimodo finally enters the courtroom under heavy guard, silent and calm. The auditor—who happens to also be deaf and trying to keep it secret—begins to interrogate Quasimodo. But Quasimodo can't hear the questions being asked of him and the auditor can't hear his silence, and he continues questioning Quasimodo as though he were providing answers. The audience begins to whisper and laugh, infuriating the auditor, who is convinced Quasimodo has said something insulting. Finally, the provost, Robert, enters and takes over the questioning. Quasimodo still doesn't understand, and so he merely gives his name, causing the audience to laugh again. Quasimodo continues to give the right answers to the wrong questions, now infuriating the provost. He demands that the serjeants take Quasimodo to the Place de Grève to beat him as punishment. Finally, a lone clerk speaks up to inform the auditor that Quasimodo is deaf—but the auditor, of course, cannot hear him. The auditor thinks the clerk is complaining about Quasimodo's behavior, so he assigns him an extra hour of punishment.

At the Place de Grève, trash from the holiday is strewn about the square. In Chapter 2, the narrator describes the cell that occupies a corner of the square, which had been erected 300 years earlier as a sort of "living tomb" by a woman in mourning who chose to spend the rest of her days praying in it. This kind of confinement was common in medieval cities, and most of the cells were occupied at all times by penitents or lepers. Near the cell at the Place de Grève in Chapter 3, three women and a boy pass by, hurrying in order to make it to Quasimodo's public punishment in time. The women gossip about the pillories they have seen and about the visiting Flemish ambassadors who attended the mystery play. They are interrupted by the sight of a crowd gathered around Esmeralda, who is dancing. The boy's mother, Mahiette, is afraid she will steal her child, and the other woman observes that the Recluse who lives in the cell now holds the same belief about gypsies.

Mahiette tells the story of Paquette La Chantefleurie, a young woman who fell into disrepute as a girl by becoming a prostitute. She gave birth to a daughter, whom she adored and lavished with attention. Not long after, a band of gypsies arrived near the outskirts of town, and Chantefleurie paid them a visit to get her fortune told. After she returned home, her daughter was stolen from her bed while Chantefleurie visited with a neighbor. After searching the town all day, Chantefleurie returned home to find a different child in her bed—a disfigured boy with one eye—which her neighbors claim the gypsies had left. By the time Chantefleurie returned to the gypsies' encampment, they were gone. Days later, a search party only found a fire, ribbons from Chantefleurie's baby, and drops of blood. Soon after, her hair turned gray and she vanished from the town. One of the women asks Mahiette what became of the little boy who was left by the gypsies, and Mahiette tells them that the archbishop took him in and sent him to Paris to be left as a foundling at Notre-Dame—a story very similar to Quasimodo's.

The women make their way to the Recluse's cell to leave her a cake they brought. The sight of the Recluse in her freezing cell moves and repulses the women, though she seems unaware of them. Mahiette moves her head into the window to take a closer look, and when she sees the Recluse's eyes are fixed on a baby shoe, she begins to cry; she suddenly recognizes her as Paquette la Chantefleurie. The women offer her the cake but she refuses it. Then the Recluse hears the sounds of Esmeralda dancing nearby, and she curses her for being a gypsy.

Chapter 4 begins at the pillory, where a crowd continues to gather in anticipation of Quasimodo's punishment. Quasimodo arrives, bound with ropes, and the narrator observes how only the day before he had been carried through the square, lauded as the Fools' Pope. Quasimodo is stripped of his shirt, and the crowd laughs at his misshapen body. The torturer arrives and lashes him with a whip. Quasimodo remains impassive despite the fact that he begins to bleed from his wounds. The crowd hurls insults at him, led by Jehan and his friends.

Suddenly Claude Frollo arrives, and Quasimodo's expression changes to one of tenderness. But once Claude comes close enough to see that it is Quasimodo who is being punished, he turns around and leaves. Quasimodo then begs for a drink of water, but the crowd only renews their hatred, pelting him with stones. Esmeralda suddenly appears with her goat. She climbs the ladder to the platform of the pillory. She leans over Quasimodo and raises a cup of water to his lips, and he sheds a tear at her kindness. Quasimodo tries to kiss her hand but she withdraws, frightened; Quasimodo stares at her with sadness. From the cell nearby, the Recluse continues to shout curses at Esmeralda, who leaves quickly.


The author uses Quasimodo's trial to provide a sarcastic, darkly funny commentary on the medieval justice system. The judge can hardly be bothered to show up, and the auditor is a deaf man—who pretends he can hear—who sentences another deaf man for a crime he did not commit. If the outcome were not so tragic as to lead to Quasimodo's torture, it would be comical. The auditor's treatment of Quasimodo only goes to show that he is judged harshly by his appearance and is hardly afforded a fair trial. Here, Quasimodo is not only condemned for his appearance by individuals but by the government as well. The fact that no one comes to his defense is only further indication that he is alone.

The author doesn't spare the crowd in his critique of medieval punishment and torture because they only attend it as a spectacle and vehicle for their own hatred for Quasimodo's difference. The narrator points out that "he was being pilloried on the self-same square where the day before he had been saluted," showing how fickle the crowd's attention is before any kind of spectacle. Quasimodo's torture by whipping is hardly over before the crowd begins to stone him with rocks, and not even Claude comes to his aid or defense—even though Quasimodo's hope when he sees him in the crowd is heartbreaking, and more so because Claude is likely just as guilty as Quasimodo. It's easy for the reader to forget at this point that Quasimodo was put on trial for attempting to kidnap Esmeralda, but for the reader who remembers the fact that she seems to be the only person to offer him any compassion reinforces the depth of her character. Esmeralda, the much-maligned gypsy, is the only person in the crowd who demonstrates any kindness, forgiveness, or sympathy—and she extends it to a man who society shuns and someone who, from her perspective, tried to harm her. Hugo intends to induce the same sympathy for Quasimodo from the reader because, at this point, Quasimodo begins to take on the qualities of a tragic hero, suffering his unjust punishment in silence.

Hugo links Esmeralda and Quasimodo in more than one way in this chapter, thanks to the story that Mahiette tells about Paquette La Chantefleurie. It seems a strange coincidence that the Recluse, with her hatred for gypsies, would be the same Paquette La Chantefleurie who discovered the child Quasimodo in her bed to replace her daughter, but it heightens the sense of fate in the novel. The narrator also seems to hint that her missing daughter may, in fact, be Esmeralda, making it a tragic irony that Chantefleurie detests gypsies.

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