The Hunchback of Notre-Dame: Essay Q&A
1. What role does architecture play in the novel?
Victor Hugo uses architecture, especially the church of Notre Dame, to explore the manner in which various generations and cultures preserve ideas. Ancient cultures built large edifices adorned with symbols and stylistic relief that were the only means by which those cultures could transmit the crucial ideas of their age to history. This is the reason that Clade Frollo uses architecture as his texts for his research of alchemy. It is also the reason that Claude Frollo asserts that the printing press will destroy the church since a book is more easily manufactured and cheaply purchased than a building. Even Pierre Gringoire, the poet, becomes enamored of architecture, though whereas Claude Frollo seeks knowledge Gringoire is content to enjoy the aesthetic value of a something like a simple flight of stairs. The architecture of Notre Dame is also significant because it is Quasimodo's home. We learn that he has spent almost all his life among its spires, bells and gargoyles and Hugo characterizes him as the "soul" of the old church.
2. What role does the character's natures play in determining which emerge from the story as sympathetic and which are otherwise?
Pierre Gringoire remains true to his poetic come-what-may nature and emerges from the story as a sympathetic character. Though he abandons Esmeralda to Claude Frollo in favor of the goat Djali his reasoning for doing so is in keeping with his optimistic outlook on life in that he cannot conceive of the extent of Frollo's evil intentions. Though Jehan Frollo put up the pretence of trying to please his brother he makes no attempt to hide his true ribald nature. When Jehan finally forsakes even the pretence of scholarly pursuits and joins the Truands his penchant for dramatic action leads to his heroic, tragic and sympathetic death at the hands of Quasimodo. Claude Frollo has spent his whole life engaged in learning and ascetic living. He is a priest and an alchemist with no tolerance for women or gypsies. When he sees Esmeralda, however, long suppressed sexual urges and jealousies assert themselves in his character and he comes to believe that his true nature is the burning passion of his desire for the girl. The struggle to suppress his nature drives him mad but not before he has destroyed Esmeralda as well.
3. What role do women play in the novel?
Most of the female characters in the novel are presented unflatteringly. Even the minor characters like Fleur-de-Lys and the women who visit the Sachette are portrayed as primarily concerned with gossip, appearances and possessions. Esmeralda, despite her physical charms and unique upbringing among the gypsies, naively and foolishly devotes herself to Captain Phoebus and even offers to sacrifice her virtue for that unworthy soldier. Even when her life is in immediate danger, she is unable to resist calling to him and thus revealing herself to the soldiers come to hang her. The Sachette alone among the female characters retains some of her dignity though it is the result of her long suffering due to the loss of her child. Though many of the characters in the novel are little more than caricatures of a type, the female characters suffer most from this treatment and, in the case of the Sachette, achieve dignity only in their role as mothers.
4. What are some of the misunderstandings that lead to tragic outcomes in the novel?
Quasimodo suffers on the pillory because both he and the judge are deaf and cannot hear one another. The Sachette hates Esmeralda and willingly holds her for the soldiers until she realizes, too late, that the gypsy girl is really her lost daughter. Esmeralda believes that Captain Phoebus is chivalrous and sensitive because he is handsome and dresses fine when in fact his intentions are dishonorable and he is really a fellow of base tastes. Pierre Gringoire believes that Claude Frollo wishes to save Esmeralda and so organizes the Truand raid to Notre Dame where Quasimdod fails to understand that the Truands are acting to save Esmeralda. His vigilant and desperate defense of the church is ultimately tragic because he succeeds only in thwarting Esmeralda's rescue and instead aids her destruction.
5. What period details from the 15th century does Hugo use to flush out his historical novel?
Writing from the 19th century Hugo used the setting of Paris at the end of the middle ages to convey to his readers a story in which the surroundings would be eerily familiar and yet strange to his contemporaries. Nineteenth century Frenchmen no doubt enjoyed the humorous depiction of the Flemish ambassadors and the description of the deaf judge yet would have been equally disdainful of the royal privileges and abuses prevalent in their own recent past. For instance, the intricate and inefficient distribution of power and titles in the city based on position rather than merit seems somewhat humorous in the novel but was the result of gross abuses of power by the aristocracy. The scenes depicting King Louis XI's cruelty and haughtiness would have had particular resonance with the French readers who recognized that despised monarchs influence in their own systems of government. The Hunchback of Notre Dame also benefits from the author's lengthy observations upon the architecture and layout of the city of Paris. Hugo's readers would have recognized many of the places described in the book and appreciated the extent to which the city had changed. At the center of the book, of course, is the church of Notre Dame which Hugo takes great care to recreate as it appeared in the 15th century.