The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Themes


Victor Hugo uses contrasting themes to highlight the dual natures of his characters and setting in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The contrasts establish tensions central to the plot.

Appearance versus Reality

Many of the characters and settings in the novel are not as they appear at first glance. Quasimodo is depicted as terrifyingly disfigured, striking fear and revulsion in most who look upon him. But his appearance hides a gentle, compassionate, protective soul who is misunderstood by the world. Claude Frollo is the esteemed archdeacon of Notre-Dame Cathedral, so no one suspects the horrors he is capable of—murder, attempted kidnapping and rape, and manipulation. Phoebus is another character whose appearance does not mirror reality—Esmeralda falls in love with him because he is an officer who rescues her, but she can't see that he is manipulative and shallow and doesn't love her back. The theme extends to relationships as well, particularly that between Esmeralda and the Recluse. The Recluse initially despises and heckles Esmeralda because she is a gypsy, but they eventually discover they are mother and daughter, and their reunion is bittersweet.

Love versus Lust

Love and lust are not equal in the novel, though feelings of either one or the other center around Esmeralda and drive much of the action. Quasimodo has perhaps the purest love for Esmeralda, and he protects her and respects her boundaries and wishes. Still, his love for her leads him to feel tortured because she cannot return it. Esmeralda, in turn, is in love with Phoebus, who only feels lust for her (though he deceives her into thinking that he loves her). Claude Frollo is also driven by an obsessive lust for Esmeralda that compels him to attempt kidnapping, murder, and rape—all of which he justifies based on his belief in fate. Pierre Gringoire also loves Esmeralda, and though he respects her enough not to take advantage of her, he fails to protect her from Claude Frollo. Hugo is careful in the novel to separate love and lust and to show the frustration that accompanies unrequited emotions.

Fate versus Free Will

In the novel's preface, Hugo mentions that his story is inspired by the notion of fate, and many of his characters do seem preoccupied by it. Claude Frollo sees fate as a web in which individuals are caught, with the outcome already determined. But fate also becomes an excuse for Claude to deny responsibility for his actions. He reminds Esmeralda more than once that fate brought them together, so she might as well submit to it—despite the fact he terrifies and tortures her. Hugo uses Claude to demonstrate that not believing in free will can lead one to excuse terrible things in the name of fate and destiny.

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