The Hunchback of Notre-Dame: Theme Analysis
Human Initiative vs. Fate
Claude Frollo uses the example of the spider and the fly to characterize the inevitability of his passion for Esmeralda and the certainty that it will destroy her. As the story develops he and Esmeralda are certainly drawn into a web of mutual destruction but what Frollo ascribes to fate the reader understands to be a carefully constructed plan to ensnare the poor gypsy girl and force her into submission or death. Like Frollo, the Sachette mistakes her own actions for the workings of fate. Believing that the gypsies killed her baby girl, the Sachette chooses to sequester herself in the Tour-Roland where she develops an intense hatred for gypsies while she practices extreme devotion to the tiny shoe, the only surviving relic of her daughter. Her readiness to accept what she believes to be her fate prevents her from realizing until too late that the gypsy girl she has vented her rage upon is her long lost daughter.
Loyalty, in various guises, steers much of the novel's plot action. Quasimodo's intense loyalty to Claude Frollo initially prevents the hunchback from perceiving his master's madness and when he does understand following Frollo's attempted rape of Esmeralda, Quasimodo is powerless to harm him. In the end, however, the loyalty Quasimodo feels to Esmeralda (the only other person besides Frollo to show him kindness) trumps his loyalty to his master and he pushes Frollo from the parapet to his death. Many of the characters are bound to someone or something by loyalty and the instances where they break that tie figure prominently in the story. For example, Esmeralda is loyal to her virtue because she believes that so long as she is virtuous her amulet has the power to restore her mother. She is willing to sacrifice her virtue to Phoebus, however, and her blind love for the handsome soldier leads to her destruction. Similarly, Frollo abandons his brother in order to pursue his passion for Esmeralda and this decision leads to Jehan's dramatic death and only serves to drive Frollo further from the bounds of sanity.
Love comes in many forms in the story and more often than not is detrimental to those caught up in it. Frollo's intense and obsessive love of Esmeralda leads to his madness and ultimately his destruction at the hands of Quasimodo. Esmeralda's naive and unyielding love of Phoebus blinds her to his insincerity and leads to her discovery and subsequent death when she cannot resist calling out to him. Quasimodo's pure and tender love for Esmeralda is borne of her simple act of kindness but leads him to reconfigure his devotion and life around her so that when she dies he elects to join her in the tomb rather than go on living. Characters such as Pierre Gringoire and Captain Phoebus benefit the most by remaining unattached to any singular passion and thus remain open to whatever opportunities come their way.
During the course of the novel, Victor Hugo delivers several discourses upon the manner in which mankind has transmitted ideas from one age to another. He draws a sharp delineation between the ancient epochs during which man's ideas were literally carved into stone and the increasingly modern trend to inscribe those ideas upon the pages of books. The setting for the novel is during the transitional period of the late middle ages and Hugo uses the innovations of the time, most importantly the printing press, to highlight the changing tastes of society. Thus, the King's bookseller laments at the beginning of the story that the printing press is ruining the populace and Claude Frollo later in the tale predicts that the printing press will destroy the church.