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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | Study Guide

Victor Hugo

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame captures the nature, culture, and aesthetics of medieval Paris. Published in 1831 in French and translated to English in 1833, the novel tells the story of Quasimodo, a deformed man looked down on by 15th-century Parisian society who falls in love with the mysterious gypsy Esmeralda. As the relationship between the two evolves, the city and Notre-Dame Cathedral loom in the background.

Written at a time when Gothic novels were in vogue, the novel was immediately popular both within and outside the French-speaking world. Today the novel is an evocative portrait of an era in Parisian history, as well as a moving and heartbreaking narrative.

1. Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame to save the architecture of Paris.

A great admirer of Gothic architecture, Hugo crafted his book to stress the importance of the preservation of France's architectural history, which he felt was slowly being eroded by newer constructions. He had previously written and distributed a pamphlet entitled War on Demolishers to advocate for building conservation in Paris.

2. The Hunchback of Notre Dame's popularity led to restorations of the cathedral.

Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame reignited interest in the Notre-Dame Cathedral, as well as other Gothic Parisian landmarks. Several years after the book's publication, a massive restoration project began on the structure.

3. Quasimodo may have been inspired by a real craftsman.

Historical records indicate there was, in fact, a hunchback stonemason hired to help repair the Notre-Dame Cathedral shortly before Hugo's book was published. The man is credited in labor records as "Le Bossu," meaning "the hunchback" in French.

4. Quasimodo's name refers to a Catholic holiday.

Quasimodo Sunday refers to the second Sunday of Easter in the Roman Catholic tradition. The word quasimodo is a combination of the Latin words quasi (meaning "almost") and modo (meaning "the standard of measure"). When translated to English, this phrase is often reduced to the word "like," and it appears in the Introit chant read at Mass on Quasimodo Sunday. The full chant reads, "Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure, spiritual milk, that in Him you may grow to salvation, alleluia." The character was named Quasimodo because he was found by Claude Frollo on this day.

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame's original title did not mention the hunchback.

Hugo originally called his novel Notre-Dame de Paris, and it was published in French under this title in 1831. When the title was changed for the English translation, Hugo protested, as he wanted the novel's focus to be the building, not the character.

6. Hugo wrote the libretto for an opera based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

La Esmeralda was an opera with music composed by Louise Bertin, based on Hugo's novel. Although Hugo wrote the text for the production, his venture into opera was much less successful than his novel writing. The show created a scandal that ended Bertin's career when political opponents of her family accused her of receiving favoritism from the government. This perception led to a riot at one of the performances.

7. Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame may have been the first novel to feature beggars as protagonists.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame focuses on the lives of beggars and thieves and not the wealthy, elite rulers or soldiers of France. Some critics believe the cathedral itself should be considered the true protagonist, in which case The Hunchback of Notre Dame would be the first novel to feature a nonhuman structure in that role.

8. The law of sanctuary that protects Esmeralda still exists today.

Though it's generally considered a medieval concept, churches can still provide sanctuary for persecuted criminals. This practice originated long before Christianity, when ancient Greek and Roman temples would occasionally show mercy by sheltering convicts. In modern times, certain Protestant churches in the United States and Canada—particularly the Lutheran Church—have provided sanctuary, determining whom to shelter on a case-by-case basis. At the time of the Vietnam War, for example, many who sought to evade the military draft in the United States sought protection from the law in places of worship.

9. The earliest film adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame premiered in 1905.

More than 90 years before the popular Disney adaptation premiered, a silent, black-and-white film of Hugo's novel was shot with a run time of only 10 minutes. Entitled Esmeralda, the film had just two characters: Denise Becker as Esmeralda and Henry Vorins as Quasimodo.

10. Hugo would probably have hated every film adaptation.

As with many books-turned-films, critics have noted all of the many film versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame fail to adhere to Hugo's intent in writing the novel, particularly because they place too much emphasis on Quasimodo's character and not enough on the city itself. Another deviation arose from a censorship code banning depictions of clergy as villainous, and still others from Hollywood's propensity for happy endings.

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