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Literature / The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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"We shall not attempt to give the reader an idea of that tetrahedron nose- that horse-shoe mouth- that small left eye over-shadowed by a red bushy brow, while the right eye disappeared entirely under an enormous wart- of those straggling teeth with breaches here and there like the battlements of a fortress- of that horny lip, over which one of those teeth projected like the tusk of an elephant- of that forked chin- and, above all, of the expression diffused over the whole-that mixture of malice, astonishment, and melancholy. Let the reader, if he can, figure to himself this combination."

The other famous novel by Victor Hugo. Written in 1831, Notre-Dame de Paris, known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is a rich, meandering tale that addresses messy relationships, fate, and the future of architecture in 1482. The English title is a misnomer, since the protagonist of the story is Esmeralda, the original title being a metaphor on the cathedral who serves as the central location of the novel, and Esmeralda herself (though one could argue the cathedral is itself a character). Victor Hugo strongly protested against the English title, as it turns the focus from the cathedral onto the characters.

The hunchback is Quasimodo, the deaf, one-eyed, hunchbacked, monstrously ugly bell-ringer of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Abandoned outside the church at the age of four, he was taken in out of kindness by the Archdeacon of Josas, Claude Frollo, who raised him in the church and introduced him to the bells.


When the hitherto chaste Frollo sees the gypsy girl Esmeralda dancing in the street one day, he finds himself stricken with lust, and doesn't know how to deal with it. So, sure as Love Makes You Evil, he grabs Quasimodo (for muscle) and tries to kidnap her. The attempt is foiled by Phoebus, Captain of the Archers. It is spectacularly not foiled by lovable slacker-poet Pierre Gringoire, who gets knocked out trying to save the girl.

Later that night, however, Esmeralda temporarily marries the poet, to save his life from her friends at the Court of Miracles. That doesn't mean she's going to let her new "husband" touch her, mind you, or that she's going to give up her dreams of marrying Phoebus. Phoebus likes the look of her, himself, and although he's already engaged to his teenage cousin Fleur-de-Lys, he's not opposed to a bit on the side.


Esmeralda's small kindness to Quasimodo when he is in the stocks for the kidnapping attempt (Frollo having let him take the fall) makes her an angel in Quasimodo's mind, and he is henceforth devoted to her. This eventually, and painfully, puts him in conflict with Frollo, whose combination of lust and loathing for Esmeralda makes him increasingly unstable.

Amidst the drama and tragedy resulting from everybody's fatal obsessions, Hugo includes leisurely chapters on the architecture of Paris and the expected impact of the newly-developed printing press.

The novel has inspired many adaptations. Live-action film versions most notably include those of 1923, 1939, and 1956. Other adaptations include the 1996 Disney animated version (which itself got a Screen-to-Stage Adaptation that was surprisingly accurate to the original novel) and a French-language rock opera called Notre-Dame de Paris.

This novel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Phoebus can't be bothered to remember Esmeralda's name, so he usually just takes a stab at it.
  • Agony of the Feet: Esmeralda is threatened with having her foot crushed in a vise unless she confesses to Phoebus's murder.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: When he's about to be executed, Gringoire begs for his life to the King quite verbosely. It works.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Frollo, Quasimodo and (to a lesser extent) Gringoire are in love with Esmeralda, who only has eyes for Phoebus, who is engaged to Fleur-de-lys and only interested in Esmeralda for sex.
  • Ambiguous Gender: At least in the English translation, Djali is referred to with masculine and feminine pronouns, with Esmeralda specifically stating, "She is [her] sister." Gringoire notes that the innocent and naïve Esmeralda does not seem to distinguish between male and female.
  • Annoying Arrows: Arrows don't have much of an effect on Quasimodo.
  • Anti-Villain: Claude Frollo was originally a good man. When baby Quasimodo was abandoned on the cathedral's foundlings bed, nobody would take him because of his ugliness, except Frollo, who raised him like a son. He also raised his younger brother, Jehan when their parents died, and supported him later, even though he disapproved of Jehan's lifestyle. He did evil things only because of his obsessive and unrequited love for Esmeralda, and it's described how much he's suffering (being aware that you're slowly going insane is NOT a pleasant process.)
  • Anyone Can Die: By the end of the story, only Phoebus, Fleur-de-Lys, Gringoire and Djali are left alive.
  • Attempted Rape: Frollo tries to rape Esmeralda one night in the bell tower until Quasimodo comes and nearly kills him before he recognizes Frollo. When he does, he completely submits to him, and Esmeralda uses a dagger to threaten Frollo out of the room.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Subverted. Esmeralda is completely taken in by Phoebus' outward appearance and believes he's her Knight in Shining Armor when he's actually a despicable lout. By contrast Quasimodo, while ugly and socially unappealing, is still one of the most decent characters in the book.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Quasimodo's devotion to Esmeralda starts when she shows him kindness and brings him water on the scaffold even though the only reason he's up there is because he tried to kidnap her at Frollo's behest.
  • Burn the Witch!: Esmeralda is charged with witchcraft, among other offenses. However, she's sentenced to death by hanging, not by burning at the stake.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Phoebus is a fitting deconstruction of the Knight in Shining Armor, as he does manage to save Esmeralda from Quasimodo and Frollo in the beginning, although rather than being chivalrous and noble, he is a drunk, a womanizer, and a bully, with virtually no idealistic qualities, behaving more like... well, like a medieval soldier. Likewise, Esmeralda, as the 16-year-old Damsel in Distress, is also fickle, foolish, and hopelessly idealistic.
  • Disney Villain Death: Quasimodo throws Frollo off to his doom, in a fit of rage after Esmeralda was hanged.
  • Distant Finale: The ending takes place generations later when a group of surveyors discover two long-rotted corpses Together in Death.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Esmeralda wears shoes at the beginning of the story but spends its second half (starting from her rescue by Quasimodo) barefoot.
  • Doorstop Baby: Quasimodo was abandoned outside the church and adopted by Frollo.
  • Downer Ending Frollo gives up Esmeralda to the troops and watches while she is being hanged. Seeing Frollo laughing at Esmeralda's execution, Quasimodo pushes him from the heights of Notre Dame to his death, then he commits suicide.
  • Evil Cripple: The auditor (assistant judge) who vainly tries to hide his deafness but resorting to rote trial dialogue. He doesn't realize Quasimodo is also deaf, resulting in a scene that the mob finds funny, but only infuriates the auditor, leading to Quasimodo's unjust punishment.
  • Gentle Giant: Downplayed. Except to the people he loves (all two of them), Quasimodo is unsociable, violent, and mean.
  • The Hedonist: Jehan Frollo is the 15th century equivalent of a frat boy. Supposedly a student, he spends all of his freetime and (his brother's) money on hedonistic pursuits: expensive clothes, parties, and courting loose women.
  • Historical Domain Character: King Louis XI. Gringoire was also a real person, although he was born circa 1475 and would still have been a child at the time the novel takes place.
  • Hope Spot: When it turns out that Gudule is actually Esmeralda's mother, she hides Esmeralda in her cell, and it seems that she will escape the executioners. Gudule manages to convince the soldiers that Esmeralda ran away, and they are about to leave... but just then, Esmeralda hears Phoebus' voice and cries out for Phoebus to help her. Phoebus doesn't even hear her, but the soldiers grab her and take her to the gallows. Gudule is killed while trying to protect her.
  • I Didn't Mean to Turn You On: Esmerelda had no intention of awakening lustful feelings in Frollo. Or anyone else (except Phoebus), for that matter.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Quasimodo does what he can to make Esmeralda happy, including acting as a messenger to Phoebus, whom he knows to be a jerk.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: The chapter titles, as was the style in the day. For example, "The Inconveniences of Following a Pretty Woman through the Streets in the Evening" or "The Retreat in which Monsieur Louis of France says his Prayers".
  • Just Whistle: Quasimodo gives Esmeralda a literal whistle for this purpose.
  • Karma Houdini: Phoebus has no problem taking advantage of Esmeralda's innocence or letting her die on trumped up charges including charges of his own murder. However, he suffers a tragic fate at the end: he gets married to a woman who is just as horrid and selfish as him.
  • Kill 'Em All: Only Gringoire, Djali, Phoebus and Fleur-de-Lys survive.
  • Lost in Imitation: Quasimodo is originally a secondary character, but his role has been exaggerated and romanticized in the public mind though many adaptations. The architectural themes have generally been minimized.
  • Lovable Coward: Gringoire tries to do his best to help save Esmeralda, but when his own neck is at stake, he decides he'd rather not.
  • Love at First Sight: Deconstructed. Esmeralda falls for Phoebus instantly after he saves her from Quasimodo and Frollo's kidnapping attempt. But since she doesn't really know him, she sees him as a Knight in Shining Armor instead of the cynical, selfish jerk that he really is. Frollo also falls for Esmeralda the first time he sees her (albeit a lot less purely); but this love is a dark, unhealthy obsession that eventually drives him mad.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Frollo, Quasimodo, Phoebus, and Gringoire are all attracted to Esmeralda, who is married to Gringoire, but has eyes only for Phoebus, who is engaged to Fleur-de-Lys.
  • Male Gaze: Every description of Esmeralda. Did we really need the details of her half-dressed state, her "waving locks, more lustrous than the raven's wing", her "half-naked shoulders" and "bare legs" — as she's being dragged to the gallows?
  • Market-Based Title: Published in the original French as Notre-Dame de Paris, usually published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Esmeralda enters a four-year "gypsy marriage" with Gringoire in order to save his life.
  • Meaningful Name: "Quasimodo" actually has a double meaning. It first refers to the day Frollo found him: the last day of the Easter Octave, also known as Quasimodo Sunday. Quasimodo is also a reference to how he seemed merely "almost" human to Frollo. The text leaves it ambiguous as to which meaning Frollo was going for, but given his conflicted personality, it's likely he meant both.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Esmeralda is sentenced to death and eventually hanged for stabbing Phoebus, which was actually done by Frollo.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Gringoire is deemed a coward by the other characters but otherwise is easily the nicest character in the book.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: Djali is Esmeralda's adorable and intelligent goat.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: At her introduction in the book, Esmeralda is referred to as "La Esmeralda", actually "The Emerald". She is essentially nicknamed by the Gypsies and the beggars, and her true name, Agnes, is only revealed at the end of the book.
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: Esmeralda has an amulet which is supposed to help her find her mother.
  • Promotion to Parent: Frollo's parents die while he's a young man, leaving him to raise his baby brother, and then Quasimodo, whom he adopts.
  • Pure Is Not Good: Quasimodo and Frollo have no idea how to deal with sexual frustration since they've lived all their lives away from the opposite sex.
  • Reality Ensues: When Quasimodo shoves Frollo off the top of the cathedral for his complicity in getting Esmeralda hanged, Frollo doesn't hit the ground straight away. He gets caught on some guttering, and several paragraphs are spent on his struggle to try and reach a safe spot. Then, when the guttering breaks, he falls and hits the roof of a house, falls off that and hits the street, which is what finally kills him.
  • Rescue Romance: Esmeralda falls for Phoebus after he rescues her from Frollo and Quasimodo.
  • The Siege: Quasimodo bravely and single-handedly defends the cathedral against an armed horde. Who were trying to rescue Esmeralda. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!.
  • Single Tear: Quasimodo cries one when he's on the scaffold and Esmeralda brings him water. The narration notes that it was probably the first tear of his life.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: If Esmeralda was unattractive, or even if she was just slightly less attractive, none of the bad things in the novel would've happened.
  • Switched at Birth: The infant Agnes (who eventually became Esmeralda) was abducted by a gypsy tribe, who replaced her with none other than the infant Quasimodo. No wonder Paquette/Gudule fell to pieces.
  • Taking the Heat: Only Quasimodo is punished for the initial kidnapping attempt.
  • Thieves' Cant: Argot features heavily here, being that it focuses so much on gypsies.
  • Together in Death: Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Implied because their skeletons (which are embracing) instantly crumble into dust when excavators try to part them.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Esmeralda takes on severe shades of this when she's hiding in her mother's cell, trying to evade detection by the guards... and getting away with it... only to dash for the window and start crying for Phoebus the moment she hears his voice.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The "Court of Miracles" concept was an actual urban legend of the Paris of old. Specifically, that there was a place in the city where the poor beggars who went out during the day revealed themselves to actually be nothing but cons and thieves teaching others to do the same. To the best of our current knowledge there were a lot of actual poor populations in Paris, but there's no direct evidence any of them were an actual court of miracles; as opposed to, you know, just normal poor people.
  • Virgin Power: Esmeralda has an amulet which is supposed to help her find her mother, but believes it will only work so long as she is a virgin.
  • Vow of Celibacy: Frollo is torn between the pious celibacy he is supposed to maintain as an archdeacon and his lust for Esmeralda, becoming increasingly unstable as he fails to reconcile the two.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds:
    • Frollo is a man who tried so hard to be genuinely good that his perverse lust drives him tragically insane.
    • Quasimodo is a nasty little misanthrope, but considering the fact that he's been rejected by society at large because of his appearance, can you really blame him?
  • Writers Suck: Gringoire's career as a poet is an abject failure. The opening chapters make clear that no one except him is paying any attention to his mystery play.
  • Wrongly Accused: Esmeralda is arrested for stabbing Phoebus, which was actually done by Frollo in a fit of jealousy.
  • Yandere: Frollo's obsession for Esmeralda drives him to extreme measures to keep her to himself.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Esmeralda's mother, Paquette, was a prostitute who doted upon her daughter. When Esmeralda was kidnapped by Gypsies when she was still a baby, Paquette was completely devastated and became an anchoress, spending fifteen years in a small cell, repenting and begging for God to give her back her daughter. They're eventually reunited... only for Esmeralda to be taken away to be executed almost immediately afterwards. Paquette is killed while trying to prevent Esmeralda's arrest.
  • Younger Than They Look: Archdeacon Claude Frollo is only 36 years old, yet he is nearly bald, with only a few white hairs on his head.

Alternative Title(s): Notre Dame De Paris, Hunchback Of Notre Dame


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