The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Hunchback of Notre Dame opens in the middle of a public celebration called the Feast of Fools, which ends at nightfall in an election of the "Pope of Fools," where the winner with the ugliest face is chosen by the crowd and paraded through the streets of Paris. Earlier in the day, most of the citizens attend the mystery play in the great hall of the Palais de Justice (Palace of Justice). The audience heckles the actors, egged on by a student named Jehan Frollo and his rowdy friends. The play also is constantly interrupted by the arrival of visiting Flemish ambassadors, while the play's frustrated director, Pierre Gringoire, shouts at the actors to continue. The play finally stops altogether when one of the ambassadors calls for an early election of the Pope of Fools. Quasimodo, the deaf, hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre-Dame Cathedral, wins—his face has been disfigured since birth.

After his play is a total flop, Gringoire makes his way to the public bonfire, where a large crowd is watching a beautiful gypsy girl named Esmeralda dance with her goat, Djali. The archdeacon of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Claude Frollo, interrupts Esmeralda's performance, shouting out above the noisy crowd, accusing her of practicing witchcraft. The priest spies his adopted child, Quasimodo, being paraded by and angrily ushers him back to the church. Gringoire follows Esmeralda after her performance and watches with horror as Claude Frollo and Quasimodo attempt to abduct her. The king's officers arrive just in time, arresting Quasimodo, while Claude escapes into the night. Gringoire gets lost finding his way home and finds himself in the dangerous Court of Miracles—a slum—where he is almost robbed by thieves posing as beggars. However, Gringoire doesn't have any money. The thieves bring Gringoire back to their "king of truants" who will decide whether to hang him. Gringoire barters his way out of death by agreeing to become a truant himself. But he fails the truants' pickpocket test, so they again decide to hang him. At the last minute, Esmeralda saves him by agreeing to marry him. Back in her room she makes Gringoire promise never to touch her; she only married him to save his life.

The morning after his arrest, Quasimodo is brought before the court and interrogated by an auditor who also happens to be deaf and is keeping it secret from everyone. Neither of them can understand the other, which leads to a misunderstanding and a brutal punishment. Quasimodo will be whipped on the pillories in the Place de Grève—a public square. While Quasimodo is whipped, the crowd jeers and throws stones at him. He does not resist much, quickly learning it is futile. He finally begs for water, and when none is offered, Esmeralda steps forward and gives him some. He is taken aback by her kindness. Nearby, a recluse lives alone in a small cell built for penitents. She was once known as Paquette la Chantefleurie, but she is now known as the Recluse. Long ago, she locked herself in the cell to mourn day and night after her daughter was kidnapped by gypsies, and she has harbored a hatred for gypsies ever since—particularly for Esmeralda, at whom the Recluse constantly hurls insults when she sees her dancing. All the Recluse has with her in the cell is a tiny baby shoe left behind the day the gypsies took her baby.

Phoebus, the officer who rescued Esmeralda from Quasimodo and Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre-Dame who attempted to kidnap her, is set to marry Fleur-de-Lys de Gondelaurier—a prospect that does not excite him. One afternoon, Phoebus, Fleur-de-Lys, and her friends see Esmeralda performing on the street below their balcony, and they invite her up to dance for them. When Phoebus is awed by Esmeralda's natural beauty, Fleur-de-Lys and her friends grow jealous and treat her cruelly. Djali, Esmeralda's clever goat, spells P-H-O-E-B-U-S with blocks of wood—a trick Esmeralda taught the goat—and Esmeralda's secret crush on Phoebus is exposed. Esmeralda flees, and Phoebus follows her. They make arrangements to meet later. Claude Frollo overhears Phoebus telling Jehan (Claude Frollo's younger brother) about his meeting with Esmeralda. Claude Frollo follows Phoebus on his way to meet Esmeralda at a hotel, and he intimidates Phoebus into letting him watch them secretly from a nearby room. When Esmeralda and Phoebus grow intimate, Claude stabs Phoebus and flees out the window. The officers arrive and arrest Esmeralda for Phoebus's attempted murder and for practicing witchcraft. At her hearing she denies everything, but when the officials bring her into the torture chamber and threaten to crush her leg, she falsely confesses and is sentenced to death. Her goat, Djali, is sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft, too.

Claude Frollo visits Esmeralda in her dungeon cell. She recognizes him as the man who always insults her. She knows he is the one who tried to kill Phoebus. Claude confesses his love for her, and he begs her to run away with him. She refuses, choosing death. The next day, she is carried into the square at Notre-Dame Cathedral. Just before she is put to death, Quasimodo rescues her by swinging into the square on a dangling rope, scooping her up and carrying her swiftly away, yelling "asylum" as the crowd goes wild. He brings her inside the church, which was considered a sanctuary for criminals. Inside he keeps her safe, even though she is repelled by his appearance. Claude discovers she is in the church and grows enraged and jealous about Quasimodo and Esmeralda's relationship. One night he attempts to rape her, but Quasimodo comes to her rescue.

On a later night, Quasimodo notices a crowd flood into the square. It is a plan hatched by Claude Frollo to have truants attack the church so that he and Gringoire can kidnap Esmeralda. He wants to set up Gringoire and get Esmeralda out of the cathedral so she will be hanged for leaving her asylum. Quasimodo defends the church, unknowingly killing his adoptive brother, Jehan, in his fury. When Quasimodo returns to Esmeralda's room, she is gone—kidnapped by Gringoire and Claude. Gringoire chooses to save Esmeralda's goat, Djali, and abandons Esmeralda. Left alone with Esmeralda, Claude leads her to the Place de Grève, telling her she will be hanged unless she runs away with him, but she still refuses. He then brings her to the Recluse's cell to let the Recluse get revenge on all gypsies by holding Esmeralda prisoner until the king's officers return. When Esmeralda and the Recluse discover that they each carry one baby shoe from a matching pair, they realize that the Recluse is Esmeralda's long-lost mother. Before they can fully enjoy their reunion, Esmeralda is carried off to be hanged, and the Recluse is killed trying to protect her.

At Notre-Dame Cathedral, Quasimodo and Claude Frollo watch Esmeralda hanging from the rooftop. When Claude begins laughing, Quasimodo pushes him off the ledge. Quasimodo disappears after that, but his skeleton is found embracing Esmeralda's in the burial pit for victims of the gallows.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Quasimodo is crowned the Pope of Fools.

Rising Action

2 Quasimodo and Claude Frollo attempt to kidnap Esmeralda.

3 Esmeralda falls in love with Phoebus.

4 Quasimodo is pilloried for kidnapping Esmeralda.

5 Claude attempts to murder Phoebus; Esmeralda is framed.

6 Esmeralda is tortured into a false confession.


7 Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda and gives her asylum.

Falling Action

8 Esmeralda is hanged after being reunited with her mother.


9 Claude Frollo dies and Quasimodo disappears.

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