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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Symbols


In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo uses symbolism from the grandest scale—a cathedral—to the very smallest—baby shoes. These symbols connect the characters to each other and to their surroundings.

Notre-Dame Cathedral

Notre-Dame Cathedral is the central symbol of the novel. It stands as a character—and an extension of Quasimodo—as well as the "eye" of Paris and as architecture that can be "read" in the same way as a book through its art and history. The narrator describes the building as a living thing, noting it has been "cut," "attacked," and "killed." It is also described as the "shell" that houses Quasimodo as though the two were inextricably linked. He also notes, "each stone of this venerable monument is a page not only of our country's history, but also of the history of science and architecture." The cathedral is a fluid symbol, and it is connected to each main character in an intimate way—as a prison, as a refuge, as a home, and as a friend.

Esmeralda's Baby Shoes

Esmeralda's baby shoes serve as an enduring symbol of hope for both Esmeralda and her long-lost mother, the Recluse. Separated when Esmeralda was a baby, mother and daughter each clung to one shoe in the hope of being reunited someday. For Esmeralda, holding on to the shoe keeps her vision fixed on the possibility of a happy future—and keeps her chaste and true to herself. For the Recluse, the shoe is an object into which she can pour her grief. Given the tragic ending of Esmeralda's life not long after she is reunited with her mother, the shoes take on a bittersweet symbolism. They represent only a short-lived happiness.

The Spider and the Fly

Claude Frollo spies a spider luring a fly into its web, which sparks a philosophical revelation he has already been contemplating: some things are destined and inevitable, such as the spider catching and devouring the fly. By turn, he sees himself as the spider and Esmeralda as the fly, but he always sees their fates as linked, entwined, and doomed. Claude Frollo claims the spider and the fly "symbolize everything." Their roles as predator and prey have been preordained, and neither can do anything to change this course. And as much as Esmeralda is caught in Claude Frollo's web, he is also caught in the web of lust he feels she has spun around him.

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