Source: Gallica (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

HUGO, Victor, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Translated by Walter Cobb. New York: Signet Classics/Chamberlain Bros., 2005.

Original citation: Notre-Dame de Paris. Paris: Charles Gosselin, 1831.

Condemned: July 28, 1834.

§3: Books that attempt to attack religion or good morals;

§6: Books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way;

§7: Books engaged in any kind of superstition, fortune-telling, magic, spirit-conjuring, or other similar occult topics;

§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.

‘And now,’ interrupted Tourangeau, ‘what do you hold for true and certain?’


Coictier exclaimed, ‘Pardieu, Dom Claude, no doubt there is much truth to be found in alchemy, but why blaspheme medicine and astrology?’

‘Your science of man, your science of the heavens is nothing!’ said the archdeacon imperiously. (2005: 170)

Contrary to both the book’s usual English-language title (and its 1996 animated film adaptation by Disney), The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is about much more than just Quasimodo, the deformed bellringer of Notre-Dame Cathedral. To be sure, he is a main character, but the protagonists of the novel are, more accurately, both Notre-Dame Cathedral and the City of Paris themselves. Even more specifically, Hugo recalls the versions of that gigantic edifice and its hometown in the early days of the year 1482, almost three-hundred and fifty years before his time of writing.

Notre-Dame de Paris (its original title) is an exploration of that near-forgotten world, one Hugo sought to portray from afar as it slipped into the oblivion of the past — from the aftermath of both the French Revolution and of Napoleon’s conquests. To call the author a kind of literary time-traveler, then, is not a stretch. An avid researcher of archives, manuscripts, and the “documents” that ancient buildings themselves comprise, he conjures up the past in Notre-Dame in a way that is both erudite and poetic.

Hugo explains that the great Cathedral of Notre-Dame was originally intended not just as a structure but a great “book” in and of itself, alive in its role as the heart of the great teeming mass of Paris. This is exactly why the author chose this particular building and its surroundings as a principal setting. However, by the turn of the sixteenth century the still-new revolution of the printing press had already begun to inextricably alter the landscape of human civilization along these lines. To Hugo, this paradigm shift is central: Previous to the printed word, the most important and essentially human mode of cultural production, representation, and memory was the edifice — the architecture of our temples, cathedrals, and mosques:

In fact, from the beginning of things to the fifteenth century of the Christian era inclusive, architecture was the great book of the human race, man’s principal means of expressing the various stages of his development, physical and mental. (Ibid.: 175; Book V, Chapter 2, “This Will Kill That”)

“Be it fatal or providential,” as he begins to concludes this point, “Gutenberg is the precursor of Luther” (184) — the precursor to the great revolution of expression through printing.

With such a conciliatory attitude towards the founder of Protestantism, undoubtedly seen as an objective view today, red flags abounded for the Catholic Church of the 1830s. In general, the Index throughout its entire existence was a litigation of the impact of Gutenberg’s press, Luther’s “99 Theses” of 1517, and the religious and cultural revolutions that both espoused. This cataclysmic shift to Hugo, however, seems in hindsight almost to have been predestined. As he explains in Notre-Dame‘s preface, a single word, fate, carved in Greek on the wall of a dark nook in one of the cathedral’s towers, is the basis of his entire novel.

Conjuring and magic, furthermore, are also likely reasons for Notre-Dame‘s inclusion on the Index. Allusions to the occult are prevalent in the text, though it’s clear that Hugo was more so hinting at the zeitgeist of the late-medieval era and the common beliefs in witchcraft, sorcery, and other forms of occult magic, than endorsing them whatsoever. For example, Quasimodo’s foster-father, Archdeacon Claude Frollo, is a mysterious figure, one who is honorable in his pursuit of ecumenical knowledge. And he is a devoted caretaker to both his orphaned rapscallion of a younger brother, Jehan, and to the abandoned, deformed Quasimodo himself. But his beneficent intentions are quickly obscured by his supposed (and, later, self-proclaimed) dabbling in the dark arts:

Many serious-minded people affirmed that after exhausting the licit of human knowledge, he dared to penetrate into the illicit. He had, everyone said, successively tasted all the apples of the tree of knowledge, and whether from hunger or disgust, had finished by eating of the forbidden fruit. (159)

And: “To the mind of everyone possessed of the smallest intelligence Quasimodo was the demon and Claude Frollo the sorcerer” (161).

However, the virgin priest Dom Claude Frollo’s interest in the occult is at a certain point in the novel completely eclipsed by his interest in the opposite sex:

Each night, his feverish imagination conjured up pictures of Esmeralda in all the positions most calculated to inflame his passionate blood. He beheld her stretched over the wounded captain [Phoebus], her eyes closed, her soft naked bosom besplattered with the blood of Phoebus, at that moment of delight when the archdeacon had imprinted on her pale lips that kiss in which the girl, half dead as she was, had sensed his burning passion. (378)

Inspired by this infatuation, Frollo makes his way to the beautiful gypsy girl’s cell in Notre-Dame to both profess his unrequited love for her and, he clearly hopes, to have sex with her. She rebuffs him physically but he overpowers her with his embrace. Just as he is about to rape her, Esmeralda blows a whistle given to her by Quasimodo, her unlikely friend and ally. After a somewhat convoluted fight scene, all parties emerge relatively unscathed and go their separate ways. Nevertheless, “No one shall have her!” Frollo mutters to himself as he limps back to his own cell.

It’s no wonder why Notre-Dame is considered such a classic of literature: It is a rich tapestry of insightful philosophical-historical musings interwoven with the daily dramas of a fascinating cast of characters. Included are poignant, humane characterizations of outsiders such as the deformed and deaf Quasimodo and the gypsy Esmeralda. (The latter’s people, more correctly known as the Roma or Romani, were relatively new to Paris and France in general in the fifteenth century, and to this day are marginalized and demonized throughout Europe. The former, under the usual medieval circumstances, would have been left to the elements to die as an infant.) The book covers a lot of controversial ground and was instantly popular, way too much so for the Vatican’s liking. Thirty years later, in 1864, a condemnation and listing on the Index were also in store for Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s other controversial and world-famous novel about life in Paris. It’s almost as if it was fated to be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.