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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Context



The architecture of medieval Paris—Notre-Dame Cathedral in particular—occupies a central role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Notre-Dame Cathedral is depicted as the all-seeing central eye of Paris, as Quasimodo and Claude Frollo are able to observe the entire city from its towers. Hugo takes great pains to romanticize the architecture of the medieval era, seeing the buildings as reflections of a culture and era that will be swept away with the modernism to come, as well as with the reliance on books for information rather than buildings. Not long after The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published, Hugo's fears came true—many of the buildings referenced in the novel were torn down to make boulevards for the ever-growing city.

Hugo saw the Gothic style of architecture, with its pointed arches and vast heights, as a mirror for the opening of humanity's minds. Notre-Dame Cathedral is as magnificent as it is grotesque, full of gargoyles and massive stones. For Hugo, this contrast is mirrored in the character of Quasimodo, a hunchback with deformities who hides a beautiful soul beneath his fearsome appearance.


Hugo wrote much of The Hunchback of Notre Dame during the July 1830 Revolution, a political event that had a great impact on him and on the novel. The 1830 Revolution excited Hugo, as he hoped to witness a broader sense of liberty and democracy in France. Yet much of the novel is also influenced by the medieval politics and church of the 15th century. Hugo subtitled the novel "1482," a nod to the fact that it takes place the year before the death of Louis X, a king who, like his father before him, helped unify and strengthen France following the Hundred Years' War. Hugo wanted to depict what daily life would have looked like for all the different social classes of Paris in that era, and so he gives views from a wide variety of characters—truants to kings—in order to capture a diffuse society.

He was a huge supporter of the French Republic, and a champion of equality on both the political and social scale. Much of Hugo's criticism of the inequality he witnessed shows up in The Hunchback of Notre Dame through its bungling courtroom scenes, inept officials, and gruesome spectacles of public punishment. Throughout the novel, Hugo parallels his own time with that of the late medieval period, when the black plague, wars, and famine raged, and the Inquisition, firmly established by the church by 1184, had become an institutional structure. For a century, the Roman Catholic Church hunted the general population and aristocrats. The church accused people at random of heresy or witchcraft and took their land, money, and property, tortured them, and burned them at the stake.


Hugo is one of the most recognized names in the French Romantic era. Romanticism, in general, was marked by a reliance on imagination, freedom of expression, and an affinity with the natural world. For Hugo and the French Romantics, freedom of expression particularly meant liberty—they rebelled against conservative politics and applauded revolutionary movements. They were interested in nationalism and drawing social classes together to create a more egalitarian society. In many ways, Romanticism was a reaction against Classicism, particularly neoclassicism, a movement that espoused the superiority of Greek and Roman classics. Romantics, by contrast, wrote about the present and the individual, offering their stories up as reflections of current society and their unleashed emotions. They fought against the Industrial Revolution's effects on the landscape, and lashed out at the worship of reason and materialism embraced by their peers in the Age of Enlightenment. They looked back at medievalism and glorified it, establishing the Gothic Romanticism Movement and its fascination with the dark, macabre, and supernatural. Goethe kicked off this movement in Germany with his drama Faust, about a doctor who gives his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge.

Hugo set The Hunchback of Notre Dame 200 years in the past, as a suggestion that France's history had a wealth of stories and resonance for Romantic writers to mine. In many ways, the novel can be considered a "historical novel" for its depiction of medieval history, architecture, and politics. Hugo was also interested in the English Romantics' concept of "the noble outlaw," but he took their idea further with the character Quasimodo, who can't fit in with society due to his appearance.

Alchemy and Witchcraft

Alchemy and witchcraft played a notable role during the Middle Ages, and even more so in the late medieval period when the novel takes place. Scapegoats for famine and plague were sought out among "heretics," and individuals were blamed, burned, and tortured for natural events. Hugo makes a point to have the novel's priest, Claude Frollo, fail at the dark arts of sorcery and alchemy behind the secretive doors of his chambers, while accusing Esmeralda of witchcraft all the while. This sort of suspicion was commonplace, and alchemy was considered an occult practice, dating back thousands of years. It can be considered an early version of chemistry, but it was considered by those who didn't understand the science to be "magic," and therefore the devil's work. Alchemists in the Middle Ages were looking for a way to transform lead into gold, and they believed there was a spiritual, mysterious component found in material objects, as well as symbols, diagrams, and imagery such as the kind that Claude Frollo etched into the walls of his chambers that played a role in the process of releasing spirits from objects. The Philosopher's stone Claude Frollo seeks supposedly would give him the power to understand the alchemical process.

Superstition abounded during the Middle Ages, and mixed with an extremely religious culture, it led people to blame witchcraft for phenomena they didn't understand—blighted crops or strange illnesses. There was particularly a great deal of fear and superstition surrounding gypsies, traveling bands of immigrants from India and South Asia who made their living as itinerant workers and fortune tellers. They weren't actually practitioners of witchcraft, but because they were viewed as "outsiders," they became easy scapegoats when things went wrong, which made it easy to tie them to witchcraft. In the novel, Claude Frollo harasses Esmeralda often for what he believes are her ties to witchcraft, believing she has seduced him with her powers. Also, animals were held in suspicion. Goats, such as Esmeralda's goat, Djali, were thought to be communicators with the devil. And like toads and cats, they were also thought to be the animal familiars of witches.


Religion provides a major backdrop for The Hunchback of Notre Dame—much of its action takes place inside Paris's most famous cathedral, and one of its main characters, Claude Frollo, is an archdeacon. An archdeacon is someone who is a senior cleric in the church, with greater responsibilities. Claude's position would mean few people would question his motives or decisions, and so he is "safe" within the church to do as he pleases.

Religion is interwoven into the novel from the very opening, which takes place on the annual Feast of Fools, a religious holiday. Yet Victor Hugo uses the scene to poke fun at the seriousness with which religious officials took themselves and their ceremonies. Hugo himself was in the process of changing his religious beliefs—born a Catholic, he renounced his faith and deemed himself a "freethinker." Although Hugo venerates the cathedral itself, he seems to use Claude Frollo as a vehicle for his disdain against what he saw as the hypocrisy of the church—though Claude accuses Esmeralda of witchcraft, it is he who is practicing sorcery in his tower. He is also arguably the most corrupt character in the novel. Religious persecution also played a large role in the medieval trend of torturing people in order to get them to confess to crimes, such as the scene of Esmeralda's torture in which she falsely confesses.

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