The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Book 8, Chapters 1–6 | Summary

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Summary

Back at the Court of Miracles, a month has passed, and no one has seen Esmeralda. Gringoire is thrown into sadness, missing Esmeralda and her goat, Djali. One day, he happens across the Palais de Justice while a case is being tried against a woman for murdering an officer. Gringoire makes his way to the chamber, hoping to distract himself. An old woman, La Falourdel, is offering her testimony. She is the old woman who owns the boarding room where Phoebus and Esmeralda met the night he was stabbed. She describes how that evening she heard a scream not long after letting them in, and saw a "phantom monk" jump out the window and into the river.

Hearing Phoebus's name mentioned, Esmeralda suddenly stands up in the court and Gringoire is shocked. She asks the court desperately whether Phoebus is still alive. The president of the court informs her that he is dying. The court brings in Djali the goat as the "second accused" and proceeds to interrogate the animal by testing its prowess for magic tricks. The narrator observes, "Nothing was simpler in those days than to bring an animal to trial for witchcraft." Esmeralda hardly pays attention, bereft at the news of Phoebus, but when questioned, she vehemently denies having stabbed him and says the attacker was a priest who has pursued her.

In Chapter 2, Esmeralda is led from the courtroom into a small chamber filled with torture instruments. Charmolue informs her that if she continues to deny her guilt, they will have to question her "more insistently." She denies their accusations, though she is clearly terrified. They have placed a boot on her and threaten to crush her leg with it. Charmolue signals for the torture to begin, and Esmeralda cries out, confessing to everything they accuse her of. Charmolue regretfully informs her that, by confessing, she will be sentenced to death. Esmeralda is brought back into the court and she weeps, begging the court to kill her quickly. In Chapter 3, the judges hand her a sentence—to be publicly hanged.

The narrator begins Chapter 4 by explaining how dark dungeons were in the Middle Ages. Then Esmeralda is brought to a dungeon jail cell below the Palais de Justice, and her isolation causes her to lose all sense of time passing. One day, she wakes to find a hooded man standing in front of her, and he tells her he is a priest. He tells her that she is to die tomorrow and instructs her to follow him. The priest removes his hood—it is Claude Frollo, who she recognizes as Phoebus's killer. Esmeralda begins weeping and asks him why he has tortured her for so long. Claude replies that he loves her, and tells her the story of how he came to love her after seeing her dance in the church square. He explains that this is why he attempted to abduct her with Quasimodo, and why he had her arrested by the official—in prison, she could not escape him. He begs her to have pity on him and to run away with him, even if she hates him. Esmeralda asks him what has become of Phoebus, and Claude tells her that he is dead. She screams at him to leave, cursing him. Slowly Claude leaves her in the dungeon, shocked.

Back at the Recluse's cell in the Place de Grève, she continues to fixate on the shoe of her lost baby. She overhears a boy outside exclaim that a gypsy is going to be hanged today, and she asks a priest standing near her cell if that is true. He confirms that it is, and she tells him how much she hates one particular gypsy, a girl who would be her daughter's age if she had lived, and the priest tells her that it is that girl who is to be hanged—Esmeralda. The Recluse is delighted, and Chapter 5 ends.

Chapter 6 begins with the narrator mentioning that Phoebus has not, in fact, died. He is alive and recovering nearby and confused as to what actually transpired with Esmeralda and the phantom monk who followed him there. After a few months, he has returned to Fleur-de-Lys's house, where she scolds him and questions him about his long absence from her. He lies and says he was wounded in a fight. Phoebus notices a crowd gathering at Notre-Dame, and Fleur-de-Lys informs him a witch is going to make amends in the square before she is hanged. A wagon carrying Esmeralda makes its way through the crowd, and upon seeing her Phoebus grows pale. Claude, part of the service and prayers, approaches Esmeralda. While he loudly asks her if she has asked for God's pardon, he whispers to her that he can still save her if she will have him. She curses him, and he repeats that Phoebus is dead. But at the same moment he lifts his gaze to Fleur-de-Lys's balcony and sees Phoebus standing there. Moments later as she is being carted away, Esmeralda catches a glimpse of Phoebus, and she cries out his name.

Up in the gallery of statues, no one has noticed Quasimodo has hung a rope over the entrance steps, which he uses to slide down, knock the executioners over, and swiftly grab Esmeralda and swing back inside the church with her in his arms, shouting "Asylum!" The crowd begins to chant along with him while the executioners stand helplessly by—the church is indeed a place of refuge that they cannot cross to retrieve her. The crowd cheers Quasimodo on, "for at that moment Quasimodo was genuinely beautiful ... as he stood facing the society from which he had been banished."

Analysis

Esmeralda's trial mirrors Quasimodo's in many ways—she is not given an opportunity to defend herself, only to admit her guilt. The system of judges and officials seems rigged in much the same way, and geared toward providing a public display of punishment. The prosecutors have no evidence of Esmeralda's guilt, and so they focus on charges of witchcraft involving her goat. It is tragic that the very magic tricks that dazzled the crowds are condemned as sorcery and used against her for a crime she didn't commit. Their method of torture to extract information is also barbaric—the only information they get is a lie. Between the two trials, Hugo seems to be offering a commentary on medieval punishments as savage, cruel, and inept at yielding the true facts.

The symbolic imagery of the spider and the fly continues in this chapter as Esmeralda is ensnared in a trap set in motion by Claude to get closer to her, even if she is tortured in the process. Hugo shows how believing in fate leads Claude to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. Claude feels that he is "fated" to ensnare Esmeralda in his web, so he is blinded to the fact that he is causing everything to happen.

Hugo is building the tragic irony to come: the Recluse looks forward to watching Esmeralda be hanged publicly because of her hatred of gypsies and her projection of the loss of her daughter (who is, in fact, Esmeralda) onto her. Both mother and daughter are locked inside of prison cells so near to each other—one by her own making and one by mistake. Both seem to be victims of fated "traps" in this way.

The loophole that Quasimodo finds in order to rescue Esmeralda from execution comes as a surprise to most modern readers—the notion that the sanctuary of the church could overpower the rule of law. The separation of church and state were complete in this era as the church held its own jurisdiction over its property. Many convicts sought refuge in churches, with many never leaving the building until their death.

Quasimodo and Esmeralda are once again thrown together, and in their contrast the reader also finds a great deal of similarity in their sense of compassion and kindness. The narrator notes that "at that moment Quasimodo was genuinely beautiful ... as he stood facing the society from which he had been banished." The contradiction is not lost on the reader. Quasimodo once again finds himself in the good graces of the fickle crowd despite the fact only weeks earlier they were egging on his public torture. They have also treated Esmeralda in much the same way, seeing her plight as a spectacle rather than the suffering of a real human being.

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