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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, how is justice portrayed?

Society and the agencies of justice are portrayed as unfair throughout the novel. Quasimodo is treated unfairly, not only by the Parisian "spectators"—who laud him as the Pope of Fools one minute and throw rocks at him in the next—but by the actual justice system, too. Interrogated by a deaf auditor pretending he can hear, Quasimodo cannot understand the questions asked of him nor can the auditor understand his responses, and so he is given a harsh punishment. Esmeralda is also treated horribly by the justice system, which Claude Frollo has manipulated to get close to her. She is physically tortured and sentenced to death for her "confession," a confession that was falsely tortured out of her. Hugo weaves ideas about justice throughout the novel, choosing ultimately to end it tragically to have a strong impact on his 19th-century audience, perhaps to arouse social awareness in them and inspire them to demand justice from their government and each other.

What role does torture—both physical and mental—play in The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Few characters escape some form of torture in the novel. Quasimodo is tortured both physically—when he is pilloried as punishment—and psychologically when he is heckled by the crowd, who also throws rocks at him. Even though he cannot hear what they are saying, he understands that they are ridiculing him. Esmeralda is tortured twice over. She is tortured psychologically by Claude Frollo, who stalks her, heckles, her, kidnaps her, and terrifies her. She is also tortured physically when she is forced to "confess" to stabbing Phoebus de Châteaupers, for which she is actually innocent. Claude Frollo is mentally tortured by his obsession for Esmeralda, which is born of lust rather than love and which drives him to commit murder, lie, and manipulate in order to gain possession of her. Hugo links his characters through the tortures they endure, and he doesn't make a significant distinction between physical and mental torture in terms of the effects they have on the characters. Quasimodo's torture only serves to harden him against the outside world, further alienating him from a society that doesn't care to know him. Esmeralda, ever his twin in many ways, endures physical and mental torture that highlights her innocence and goodness. Claude's psychological torture mirrors his descent into madness, and he dies perhaps more miserable than any other character.

What different roles do love and lust play in The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Love and lust play entirely different roles in the novel. Love drives the characters to pure, yet sometimes naive, actions: at one point Esmeralda claims that love makes "a man and a woman who merge into an angel." Esmeralda falls blindly in love with Phoebus de Châteaupers, revealing her naivety about what real love resembles. For Quasimodo and Pierre Gringoire, the love they feel for Esmeralda is innocent and protective—they respect her boundaries and devote themselves to her in a way that reflects ideas of love in the novel. On the other end of the spectrum, Claude Frollo and Phoebus seem governed by lust for Esmeralda—they care little for her feelings nor respect her boundaries. And neither character places any value on her life. Phoebus also has lackluster feelings for his fiancé, Fleur-de-Lys de Gondelaurier, which result in him acting dishonorably on his lust for Esmeralda and tricking both Esmeralda and Fleur-de-Lys into thinking he is in love with them. Hugo emphasizes this contrast between love and lust to highlight the feelings that drive people to action, both good and bad. He seems to prize love over lust, but he also cautions that loving blindly can lead to foolishness.

What roles do sorcery and witchcraft play in The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Accusations and suspicions of sorcery and witchcraft abounded in the medieval era, in which the novel takes place. It's significant that Esmeralda is the one accused of witchcraft and sorcery—and punished for it—while Claude Frollo, the priest, is the one actually practicing it in his secret room in the tower of the cathedral. It adds to the sense of injustice attached to Esmeralda's tragic story line. Claude is also the one who accuses her of witchcraft, and he ultimately ensures that she is tortured on suspicion of practicing it. Hugo shows this juxtaposition to criticize the way that medieval society was enveloped in a "mob mentality" that punished innocent people without proof, while allowing evil people such as Claude Frollo the power to operate and manipulate justice based on their position in society.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, how do Claude Frollo, Phoebus de Châteaupers, Quasimodo, and Pierre Gringoire differ in their feelings for Esmeralda?

Claude Frollo and Phoebus de Châteaupers are driven by lust for Esmeralda. Claude confuses his lust for real love, but his actions show the true nature of his feelings: he ignores Esmeralda's feelings and doesn't respect her wishes or boundaries—they only make him more determined and furious. He is blinded by his possessive feelings for her, and it causes him to make rash, harmful decisions. He makes Esmeralda's life of little value: her life is less important than his need to rid himself of the anguish his feelings cause. Phoebus takes advantage of Esmeralda's love for him in order to seduce her, but he has no real feelings for her beyond lust and boredom. After she is accused of stabbing him, he never even comes to her defense. Even though Pierre Gringoire is attracted to Esmeralda and luckily becomes her legally wedded husband (at least in the eyes of the truants), he never lays a lustful hand on her after she asks him not to. He is grateful, obedient, and respectful of her, but he eventually abandons her and leaves her in harm's way. Pierre's feelings for Esmeralda prove to be shallow. Quasimodo's love for Esmeralda is perhaps the purest because he tries to keep her safe and protected, and respects the limitations in their relationship, even though it tortures him that she is frightened by his appearance. He fights to the death for her, and he chooses her over Claude Frollo, the only person he has ever loved besides her.

How does the character of the Recluse evolve over the course of The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

The Recluse is first seen as a crazed woman who has imprisoned herself in a cell to mourn her lost child and as someone who harbors a hatred for gypsies—and Esmeralda in particular. She is fixated only on her grief and her hatred, so much so that Claude Frollo leads Esmeralda to her cell after she rejects him so that the Recluse can exact revenge on the gypsies. Yet once Esmeralda reveals that she has the matching tiny shoe—which makes her the Recluse's long-lost daughter—she becomes a devoted, loving, anguished mother in the blink of an eye. She makes it her goal to protect Esmeralda from her punishment at all costs, and even dies alongside her in her heartbreak at their too-late reunion. Hugo portrays the Recluse's evolution as a cautionary tale about how giving in to bitterness leads to tragedy. The reader is able to understand why the Recluse has become this way, but the reader also sees how the Recluse's hatred blinds her to the truth; the Recluse imprisons herself and chooses to give up, unknowing how close by her happiness is—it was always within reach. Hugo also contrasts the Recluse's earlier hatred for Esmeralda to her joy at finding her to ultimately show what is perhaps the purest and most unconditional love in the novel—the love of a mother for her daughter.

What different roles does the backdrop of Paris play in The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Victor Hugo situates Paris as an important setting and backdrop for the novel—much of which takes place inside Notre-Dame Cathedral, which sits at the heart of the city and offers a bird's-eye view from the rooftop. He speaks of the architecture and skyline of medieval Paris in reverent tones, and entire paragraphs are devoted to describing the layout of streets and neighborhoods and their relationships. Much of the action of the novel also takes place in its public halls and squares, used as gathering places for citizens to watch the spectacles of torture, justice, and parades. Hugo takes great care to offer a detailed history of each site in the novel so that a reader might be able to envision what it once looked like. In a way, Hugo is using his novel as a means to preserve the history of Paris.

How does Victor Hugo portray the different social classes of medieval Paris society?

Hugo was greatly interested in the class struggles of his era, and it is no coincidence that he makes two of the central characters of the novel orphans who belong to a "lower" class. He goes to great pains to show how gypsies were cast in a menacing, unflattering light. With the character of Esmeralda, she is judged derisively on her appearance alone—even by her own mother. Phoebus de Châteaupers and Fleur-de-Lys de Gondelaurier belong to the noble class and are therefore able to remove themselves from the goings-on of what is happening to Esmeralda after she is punished. Both are painted, by turns, as uncaring and petty toward those who are "beneath" them. Claude Frollo, as archdeacon, is also painted in an "untouchable" light, despite the fact that he commits the most despicable acts of any character. Portraying this wide cast of characters from different backgrounds was important to Hugo in order to render an accurate "portrait" of Paris life in the Middle Ages, and to explore the depths, hopes, and tragedies of people from all walks of life.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, how does Victor Hugo contrast Jehan Frollo and Quasimodo?

Even though Jehan Frollo is Claude's brother by birth, Claude raises him as a son alongside Quasimodo, who he also adopts after he is abandoned as a "foundling" at the church. While Quasimodo is loyal to Claude Frollo to a fault, Claude has no such power over Jehan, who is rowdy and disobedient. Jehan lives to stir up trouble and cause mischief, and clearly sees Claude mainly as a resource for money rather than any kind of a father figure. Jehan knows how to manipulate Claude—he's the only character who can. Quasimodo is so obedient to Claude that he takes the fall for Claude's kidnapping of Esmeralda, and only turns on him once he realizes that he truly means to harm her. Hugo uses Jehan and Quasimodo as foils, opposites, of each other in a novel chock full of contrasting characters, settings, and themes. Each highlights the other's character traits, particularly when put beside Claude Frollo as their common link. There is something bittersweet in the fact that, even though they aren't related by blood, Quasimodo stays loyal to Claude until the bitter end, while Jehan only uses Claude and takes him for granted.

What role does suffering play in The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

Nearly every character endures some form of suffering throughout the novel. Quasimodo suffers first from how his disfigured appearance is perceived by others, and second from his unrequited love for Esmeralda. Claude Frollo suffers from his obsessive lust for Esmeralda, which causes him to commit murder and manipulate people for his own benefit. Esmeralda suffers from the psychological torture that Claude puts her through, as well as the physical torture she endures to extract a false confession. She also suffers the loss of her parents as an orphan. The Recluse suffers after her daughter is stolen from her by gypsies, and locks herself in a cell to mourn and fixate on the tiny baby shoe left behind. Even when a character's suffering seems over—such as when Esmeralda and her mother are reunited—the joy is short-lived and overridden by even more suffering. Hugo seems to be making the comment that love and suffering are inextricably linked because no one who loves in the novel seems to escape it. Yet for Hugo, it is also an inevitable part of life, for not to love means not to risk. He also seems to link fate and suffering, particularly voiced by Claude who believes he is doomed by powers beyond his control to suffer for his unrequited lust for Esmeralda.

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