The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What thematic role does Notre-Dame Cathedral and its architecture play in The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Notre-Dame Cathedral serves as the primary backdrop to much of the book, but it also stands in for many of Victor Hugo's ideas about the role of architecture in culture and history. Hugo needed something larger than his human characters to act as a vehicle for his ideas about the importance of architecture as a way of preserving history. He devotes most of Book 3 to discussing the cathedral's history, lamenting "the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have wrought simultaneously on this venerable monument." Hugo treats the cathedral as a character who has had wounds inflicted on it, and shows how it reflects the changing tides of revolutions and human ideas. The significance of Hugo's decision to treat the cathedral as a character operates as an allegory for Quasimodo himself, for in Book 4 the narrator observes, "he had taken on its shape, just as the snail takes on the shape of its shell." Hugo points to the ways Quasimodo is inextricably linked with the only home he has ever known; how, like the cathedral, his priceless value is hidden under a ruined exterior. It is a unique decision to make as an author, but one that Hugo knew would be powerful to his French readers who understood the historical significance of the cathedral and could vividly visualize it. After pointing out in Book 3 that Notre-Dame is "a building of transition," he goes on to the notion that all great buildings "are the work of centuries," reflecting back the history and stories of mankind. In Book 5, Hugo uses the character of Claude Frollo to voice some beliefs about the way books are replacing architecture as vessels of information and art. The narrator notes that "architecture was the great book of mankind [that] evolved along with the human mind," and that its innovations reflected the evolving artistic styles of the human race. For Hugo, architecture was the great art, best admired in a great city like Paris, and in his novel it stands in for the ideals that improve the human mind and spirit.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Book 2, Chapter 7 what motivates Esmeralda to keep searching for her parents, and how does this search affect her behavior?

In Book 2, Chapter 7, Esmeralda reveals to Gringoire that she carries a sachet around her neck that contains a green amulet inside. She believes that it is a charm that will reunite her with her parents because it was given to her by a gypsy who told her so. Esmeralda shows Gringoire the amulet after he unsuccessfully attempts to consummate their marriage, and when he asks her about her parents, she responds in a song that "my father and mother are birds of the air." As the novel progresses, it is revealed that Esmeralda believes she must stay chaste in order to be reunited with her parents, and this affects her behavior with the men who wish they could possess her. She tells Gringoire that even though they are married, they can only be friends; and with Phoebus, she gives in to his caresses reluctantly. It's significant that in a novel driven by love and lust, Hugo chose to keep its foremost temptress as innocent and chaste as possible—even her ideals of true love are romantic and idealistic. She tells Gringoire that love is "a man and a woman who merge into an angel." Hugo uses Esmeralda as a vehicle for yet one more angle on love and how it drives people to take certain actions.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Book 2, Chapter 6 how does the Court of Miracles function as a setting?

Hugo first introduces the reader to the Court of Miracles in Book 2, Chapter 6 when Pierre Gringoire accidentally finds himself there after following Esmeralda, chased by thieves disguised as beggars. The narrator describes it as a place "where no law-abiding man had ever penetrated at such an hour ... a city of thieves ... a monstrous hive to which all the hornets of the social order returned in the evenings with their booty." For Hugo, the Court of Miracles functions as a setting with which to paint one of the broad strokes of class in Paris, the class of truants and gypsies and vagabonds. Hugo was deeply obsessed with class and the ways in which society was divided, and the Court of Miracles gave him the opportunity to portray the effects of its own law and order. In many ways, it mirrors the courts of royalty, with its own "king" and sets of laws. Their "king," Clopin Trouillefou, weaves himself throughout the periphery of the novel, portrayed first as a beggar in the great hall, then as the "king" at the Court of Miracles, and finally as one of the leaders of the revolt against the cathedral. Hugo uses the king of the Court of Miracles to mirror Milton's depiction of Lucifer in Paradise Lost, a character who emerged as a "Romantic hero" because his rebellious qualities inspired the notion that it is better to rule in hell than be a slave in heaven. Hugo also wanted to show how the settings and social classes were inextricably linked across Paris despite how different sets of social classes tried not to see each other. And he is careful not only to paint the denizens of the Court of Miracles as just thieves and gypsies—they are also fiercely protective of and loyal to Esmeralda.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in what ways are Quasimodo and Esmeralda perfect contrasts to each other?

Quasimodo and Esmeralda reveal themselves to be perfect foils to each other, their contrasts highlighting their fundamental similarities. They are tied together even in the tragedies of their childhoods because Esmeralda is kidnapped and replaced by Quasimodo, linking their respective fates and future interactions. Quasimodo is seen as deformed and ugly, while Esmeralda is beautiful to the point of inspiring obsession in many other characters. Both of their appearances inspire strong reactions in other people yet rarely does anyone attempt to peer beyond their appearances to the person underneath. But their opposite appearances drive home their great similarity: their compassion and kindness. Esmeralda is the only person to take pity on Quasimodo when he is being punished, offering him a drink of water, even though he is technically her kidnapper. In turn, Quasimodo rescues her from her own punishment, each reflecting each other's bravery and kindness.

In what ways can The Hunchback of Notre Dame be considered a historical novel?

Hugo aimed to weave history into The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which takes place in the year 1482, the year before King Louis XI of France died. But he does more than merely make history a backdrop for the characters' story lines because for Hugo, the backdrop was the action. Hugo's style would have felt very modern to his readers despite the fact that it takes place 200 years earlier—most historical novels of his era were dry, factual accounts. Hugo is careful not to get dragged down into the endless facts and numbers of battles and dynasties. In fact, he mentions in the opening paragraph of Book 1, Chapter 1 that the day the story begins "is not a day of which history has kept any record." And so Hugo does not aim to interpret historical events but rather to reflect the state of mind of the French people during the Middle Ages. Hugo wants to give a vivid portrayal of what daily life felt like for all different parts of French society. Therefore, history is revealed through the attitudes and superstitions of the characters to things like justice and hierarchy.

Why does Hugo open The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Book 1, Chapter 1 in the Great Hall?

Hugo uses the entirety of Paris as his backdrop for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, from its courts of criminals to its highest bell tower. Though the novel focuses on a few main characters, Hugo also wanted to included "the masses" as a character—who are, by turns, spectators and players. By opening the novel in one of the largest gathering places, Hugo offers the reader a bird's-eye view of medieval Paris and its inhabitants, and indicates the scope of story he is aiming to tell. There is no single character to focus in on during the first few chapters, as the book pans over characters and conversations and the reader is meant to feel the crushing mass of people all around, waiting impatiently for a play to begin that most of them can't even see. Hugo uses this setting and scene to establish the relationship and juxtaposition between the individual and the crowd, and he does so without passing judgment on any of the faces he zooms in on.

In what ways can The Hunchback of Notre Dame be considered a Romantic novel?

The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been called a Gothic Romantic novel, and Hugo definitely considered himself a Romanticist. Romanticists prized imagination and emotions over reason and science, a struggle that plays out in the novel through the character of Claude Frollo, a man who is so overcome by his feelings that he abandons his faith. Hugo also incorporates a great deal of the supernatural, turning Claude into a character who (unsuccessfully) practices alchemy and black magic in his tower, while Esmeralda is put on trial for witchcraft. Yet one way that Hugo innovated within the genre was to place the novel in the past, an uncommon occurrence in Romantic novels. Hugo wanted to show that mining French history provided a rich tapestry to draw Romantic stories from, and in the process, he turns much of the novel into a historical text as well.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, what are the roles of spectators and spectacles?

Hugo deftly weaves spectators and spectacles into the novel, making them function like characters in and of themselves. They provide backdrops and commentaries for the main action in several chapters—to show how ordinary people, when whipped into the frenzy of a group mentality, lose their everyday sense of morality and logic. The novel begins with multiple spectacles, falling on a double-holiday, placing the reader in the observer's position of a mystery play spectacle and all the pomp and circumstance of the arrival of Flemish ambassadors. Here, the narrator notes that "many people in Paris are content merely to gaze at the gazers," suggesting that as long as the crowd has something to see, laugh at, or judge, it does not matter what they are watching. Each trial in the novel is also a kind of spectacle. The laws and punishments doled out seem to only serve the purpose of providing a spectacle, which Hugo uses to demonstrate the bloodlust of a frenzied crowd. The spectators show how frighteningly fickle and unreasonable they are in their treatment of characters like Quasimodo and Esmeralda—by turns, the crowd heralds, heckles, punishes, and celebrates them.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, how does Hugo make the argument that a sanctuary can also be a prison?

There are a few sanctuaries in the novel that can also be considered prisons. One is Notre-Dame Cathedral itself, which serves as both a home and a prison to Quasimodo, its deaf bell-ringer. Even though Quasimodo loves the cathedral as though it were a part of him, in many ways he is trapped in it, forced by his deformities to burrow and hide in it. He also brings Esmeralda there to rescue her from execution, thereby turning it into a prison for her. Another sanctuary that can also be considered a prison is the cell in Place de Grève where the Recluse lives, grieving her lost daughter. Even though she is free to leave, she turns the room into both a physical and psychological prison, obsessing over her daughter's baby shoe. Esmeralda and the Recluse's story lines are similar in that they were both carving out hopeful lives for themselves when fate pushed each of them in another direction. Esmeralda, in the present, has talent, popularity, a place to live, and some money. The Recluse, when she was Paquette la Chantefleurie, had a new baby to love and live for. As Hugo explores fate and free will through the characters' story lines and political facets of society—church, culture, law, government—he shows how free will can only go so far. One moment a person can be safe (sanctuary), and the very next moment, doomed (prison). And he also shows the corrupt human machinations—church, culture, law, government—that pose as fate and consume human happiness.

How does the reader's perception of Quasimodo change over the course of The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

The reader's perception of Quasimodo shifts dramatically over the course of the novel. First, the narrator attempts to strike pity for Quasimodo by describing him in Book 1 as "a giant broken in pieces and badly reassembled" (alluding to Mary Shelley's creature in Frankenstein) and offers up the observation that "he had only known humiliation." Hugo shows the reader how appearances do not often match reality and how unfair it is that Quasimodo is judged solely by his appearance. The narrator also wants the reader to question how being treated and judged this way might have shaped Quasimodo's personality, which is later described as "vicious." It also emphasizes the many contradictions that pepper the novel: for even though Quasimodo is frightening to look at, he has a gentle and loyal soul for those he cares about. Yet Hugo offers a twist before the reader fully sympathizes with Quasimodo: when Quasimodo is arrested for attempting to kidnap Esmeralda, the reader's sympathy turns to suspicion. Hugo's choice here cautions the reader once again about the danger of relying on appearances to find truth, revealing soon after that Claude Frollo is behind the kidnapping and that Quasimodo only did it out of loyalty and servitude to him. Quasimodo's embarrassment during his trial and horrible punishment after only deepen the reader's sympathies, as does his daring rescue of Esmeralda, in which he fights for justice and the spectators finally herald him as a hero. Although Hugo allows the reader closer access to Quasimodo than any of the spectators, he also puts the reader in a similar position of having to weigh appearance against actions in order to understand him and care about him as a character.

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