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The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Victor Hugo
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

Original title
Notre-Dame de Paris. 1482

First published
1831, in the First Quarto

Literary form


Writing language

Author's country

Approx. 185,000 words

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame


A deformed masterwork

Thanks in part to movies based on it, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame calls up images of Gothic horror in the public imagination. The novel is associated with other dark nineteenth-century classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

This is wrong-headed in so many ways. It makes a preternatural monster out of a character suffering a deformity. It sensationalizes a humanistic story. It steals attention from the real central character.

The title of the novel as Victor Hugo published it in French did not mention a hunchback. Notre-Dame de Paris referred to the great cathedral at the centre of the story, though one could argue Paris itself is the most important character, as represented by its famed edifice.

Hugo is said to have written the novel to complain about how the architectural wonder of Notre-Dame had been degraded in his own time since the French Revolution. As he comments in the novel:

The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.

On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior; which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid.

To him, Notre-Dame was a symbol, not so much of religious feeling but of the pride and unity of the French people. Here's just one of many poetic passages in which he eulogizes the city and its populace:

Ordinarily, the noise which escapes from Paris by day is the city speaking; by night, it is the city breathing; in this case, it is the city singing. Lend an ear, then, to this concert of bell towers; spread over all the murmur of half a million men, the eternal plaint of the river, the infinite breathings of the wind, the grave and distant quartet of the four forests arranged upon the hills, on the horizon, like immense stacks of organ pipes; extinguish, as in a half shade, all that is too hoarse and too shrill about the central chime, and say whether you know anything in the world more rich and joyful, more golden, more dazzling, than this tumult of bells and chimes;—than this furnace of music,—than these ten thousand brazen voices chanting simultaneously in the flutes of stone, three hundred feet high,—than this city which is no longer anything but an orchestra,—than this symphony which produces the noise of a tempest.

All over the map

But you shouldn't take from this that Hugo is always so high minded. Much of the readers' time in this novel is spent in the gutters and the rough abodes of the ordinary people.

Hugo writes all over the Parisian map. As in much of the best nineteenth-century literature (Charles Dickens and George Eliot come to mind), Hugo explores all the strata of urban society. From the beggars, students, and would-be actors to the priests, officers and nobility of pre-revolutionary France, they all have their roles to play in past and current times.

He also famously wanders from the thread of his main narrative to spend pages and chapters of on the city's history, architecture, geography and related topics. As well researched and expository as these lengthy sidebars are, they don't bore or annoy, as you might expect. They don't come across as scholarly essays distracting from the main story situated elsewhere, but are essential parts of the story. (Hugo would extend this digressionary style further yet, past the breaking point some would argue, in his more massive Les Misérables.)

The sensation achieved is of layers of development being exposed, building and leading over the course of time to the masses of humanity, living, loving, fighting, squirming, roiling through the streets, populating the city and the novel "today".

That last word is in quotation marks because Hugo is actually writing about a period several centuries before his own time. (See the first line.) And of course, we're reading it nearly two centuries after Hugo wrote it. Layers upon layers.

Having said all this, the so-called hunchback, the misshapened Quasimodo, is indeed an important figure in the story. He in fact becomes the crucial human figure in the novel and his part of the story reaches the most emotional heights. He is introduced, however, almost incidentally—as an object of ridicule and as a tool of the archdeacon Claude Frollo, the novel's antagonist (hard to call him a complete villain, though he comes closer to being so in the story's course).

The purported main plot of the novel revolves around the gypsy Esmeralda, who is the object of lusts and political intrigues involving Frollo, the soldier Captain Phoebus, Phoebus's jealous fiancée Fleur-de-Lys, the poet Pierre Gringoire, and the king of France, no less, as well as the courts, the king's troops, Parliament and the entire citizenry of Paris. Quasimodo is almost a hero, rescuing Esmeralda at least twice, taking her to sanctuary in the cathedral, though with tragic results.

This could make for a grandiose tearjerker. The closest I can come to thinking of another author's novel with this kind of breadth, historical overview and emotional impact is Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.

The loved and the lost

But Hugo's prose is seldom sentimental. He writes with an historian's detachment but with a finer eye for the details of daily human experience. Even with the least sympathetic of characters, he is always empathetic, understanding how they got to be who they are and with insight into their current thinking, everyone being the protagonist of their own story.

You could read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame as a satire on love and lust. It seems no character who loves another is genuinely loved in return. The ironic ending of every relationship is disaster.

Which holds for the novel as a whole, unless you count the reunion of two skeletons a happy ending. Yes, it's that dark.

No wonder most of the many film adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame have changed the conclusion to let Esmeralda find happiness with one of her suitors, though which one they can't seem to agree on.

But I doubt Hugo saw his great novel as dark. Rather it and his other great works were likely offered as realistic, showing the changing balances of power between people, the uncertainties in human relationships. Written in the midst of continuing revolutions in the early 1800s that regularly turned society upside down, questioned verities and reversed the fates of individuals and institutions overnight, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is obsessed with change, both good and bad, and the people caught up in the flux, usually beyond their control.

And I guess that does make it a kind of horror story after all. Whatever it's called.

— Eric McMillan


See also:

A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens


George Eliot

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