Gothic Existentialism in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris

Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), better known to English readers as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, due to the title chosen by Frederic Shoberl for his 1833 translation of the novel into English, is a curious book that can’t quite decide if it’s a novel, an exposé on fifteenth-century Paris, or a treatise on medieval architecture. For the modern reader, the result is impatience, some boredom, and a surprise because the story is not at all what one expects as a result of all the extratextual materials available. But most importantly for our purposes here, it is a key text in Gothic literature.

Frollo and Quasimodo in the 1996 Disney film

Let me clarify that by extratextual, I mean all of the extra materials inspired by the book, including the films, comic books, and cameo appearances of the Hunchback (his name is Quasimodo, though it is generally forgotten) in a variety of horror-related films and TV series. For example, in the 1996 TV film The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas, the Hunchback shows up to the Christmas party as part of The Munsters’ extended family. However, most of us probably know the Hunchback best from one of the many film productions, including the 1923 silent film with Lon Chaney, the 1939 film with Charles Laughton, the 1982 TV film with Anthony Hopkins, and the 1996 Disney animated film, which later was adapted into a more Gothic musical in Germany, and whose English cast album was released in 2015. All of these many versions cause people to believe they know the story, but Hugo’s original tale has been bastardized, romanticized, and deeply changed in most of these versions, including a frequently happy ending where Esmeralda rides off with Phoebus into the sunset. Hugo’s version is far darker, and perhaps less to our taste today, but it is still worth reading for its Gothic elements and its philosophy about life.

The story behind the novel is that Hugo was hired in November 1828 to write a two volume novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott. In 1823, he had favorably reviewed Scott’s Quentin Durward (according to A. J. Krailshemer’s “Introduction” to the Oxford World Classics’ edition). Scott’s influence is obvious in the historical elements of Notre-Dame de Paris, and yet, at the end of his life, Hugo denied ever writing a historical novel. That is not to say he disowned the book, but that he did not see it as historical. This is surprising given the novel’s many historical elements and Hugo’s great efforts to create an accurate depiction of the book’s physical and historical setting, but he obviously saw the novel’s Gothic and Romantic elements as more important than the historical ones. According to Krailshemer, while generally appreciative of Scott’s work, as his review of Quentin Durward shows, “Hugo regretted the absence of a truly epic dimension, a broadly sweeping view which would give the narrative some deeper meaning.”

The novel’s most overwhelming Gothic element is the cathedral itself. It is the equivalent of the discovered manuscript in most Gothic novels. Hugo wrote the novel largely to create interest in the cathedral and to help restore it. Throughout the novel, he talks about the importance of preserving architecture, and he even discusses how the printing press has killed architecture (in Book V, Chapter 2, “This Will Kill That”). Hugo argues that the great buildings of the past, especially cathedrals, were the books of their day, because they told stories, made statements, and generally educated the population in religion, politics, and history. The novel begins with Hugo claiming to have discovered an inscription in the cathedral, a Greek word, which he later claims was removed. I suspect the inscription is completely fictional and Hugo is here using a fictional technique to give authenticity to his tale. In fact, we learn Claude Frollo incised the word on the wall with a pair of compasses (Book 7, Chapter 4). This word is ’ANÁΓKH, and in the novel’s context, it appears to mean fate, compulsion, or determinism. While Christianity teaches that humans have free will, the novel ultimately shows that all the characters play out what are their natural propensities, unable to resist their natural passions or desires that ultimately lead to their destruction. We see this in how Frollo’s obsession with Esmeralda undoes his reason; we see it in how despite Frollo’s efforts to raise Jehan in a moral way, Jehan becomes a wastrel; we see it in how Esmeralda’s passion for Phoebus causes her to stupidly reveal her hiding place to the soldiers, thus leading to her execution, and we see it in Quasimodo, whose love for Esmeralda causes him to kill Frollo, the only one who loves him, and then to end his own life by burying himself in the tomb with Esmeralda, even though his love for her has been unrequited, as is the case with all the love in the novel. Indeed, not one character in the novel has his or her love returned, although most of the characters do feel love for someone. Ultimately, while the novel can be described as Gothic, historical, or Romantic, in many ways it feels like a precursor to the Naturalist movement of writers like Emile Zola.

Victor Hugo claimed he never wrote a historical novel.

But Notre-Dame de Paris’ role as Gothic literature is what most interests us here. A look at the three main characters, Claude Frollo, Esmeralda, and Quasimodo, will highlight the way Hugo effectively uses Gothic elements to create his dramatic and somewhat existential tale. Existential because, in the end, one has to wonder if the novel has any meaning other than to show the inability of the characters to create any sort of meaning and to show that the world is ultimately devoid of any supernatural forces, benevolent or sinister, to aid or even sympathize with humans, despite their religious beliefs.

 

Claude Frollo

Although later editions of the novel were named for Quasimodo, The Archdeacon of Notre Dame would perhaps be a more accurate title for the book because everything that happens in the novel begins with actions set into motion by Claude Frollo, Notre Dame’s Archdeacon.

Claude has many of the aspects of the Gothic Wanderer figure. Indeed, all three of the best known characters, Claude, Esmeralda the gypsy, and Quasimodo the hunchback, are Gothic Wanderer figures. Because Claude is our villain, however, he is the truest Gothic wanderer. He is strict in his religious beliefs, and yet incapable of overcoming his baser nature. Hugo develops his character early on by telling us what the people of Paris say about him, expressing their beliefs that he is a sorcerer. In time, we learn he is not, but he is obsessed with alchemy, which was aligned with sorcery in the medieval mind. Among Hugo’s inspirations for the novel was Henri Sauval’s Histoire et recherches des antiquités de la ville de Paris (1724). Among other things, Sauval mentions the statues and figures in Notre Dame and other buildings that alchemists associate with the mystery of finding the philosopher’s stone. Frollo is obsessed with learning the secret of the philosopher’s stone, which could allegedly turn lead into gold. In Gothic fiction, this secret is believed to be known to the Rosicrucians, and while Hugo does not mention the Rosicrucians, he may have been influenced by this aspect of the Gothic novel. Further research would be needed to learn if he had read such Rosicrucian novels as William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), whose main character acquires the philosopher’s stone. However, it has been speculated that Hugo was himself a Rosicrucian or a member of some other similar secret order. This would not be surprising since his contemporary, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, was a Rosicrucian and the author of the Rosicrucian novel Zanoni (1842).

Frollo is an alchemist determined to discover how to create gold. He is obsessed with the gold of sunbeams and believes that in them lies the secret. However, the act of creating gold was itself considered a transgression against God. It was seeking to overturn the laws of nature and considered forbidden knowledge. The possession of such a stone would allow the owner to introduce gold into circulation, which would upset nations’ economies and also enrich the owner, giving him power to become a world leader. Such is the situation St. Leon experiences in Godwin’s novel (I discuss St. Leon in depth in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption). Consequently, Frollo is committing a transgression through his alchemy efforts.

Frollo is so gung ho in these efforts that he goes to the house of Nicolas Flamel, who has died decades earlier, but was reputedly an alchemist himself. There Frollo occupies himself in:

Frollo and Quasimodo in the 1923 film.

“turning over the earth in the two cellars whose buttresses had been daubed with countless verses and hieroglyphs by Nicolas Flamel himself. Flamel was supposed to have buried the philosophers’ stone in these cellars and the alchemists for two hundred years, from Magistri to Father Pacifique, did not cease from tossing the soil about until the house, so roughly excavated and ransacked, finally turned to dust beneath their feet.” (Book 4, Chapter 5)

Frollo’s quest for forbidden knowledge eventually draws the attention of King Louis XI, who comes to him in secret, and together, they debate on astrology, medicine, and alchemy. The king thinks Frollo mad, but he needs money, so he wants to find the philosopher’s stone and they frequently talk after that. Frollo tells King Louis “to make gold is to be god. That is the only science.” (Book 5, Chapter 1) That Frollo wishes to be God is itself a transgression—the ultimate transgression of pride, which caused Lucifer’s fall from heaven.

Frollo’s quest for forbidden knowledge takes a new turn when he begins to lust over Esmeralda, who represents another type of forbidden knowledge because as a member of the clergy, Frollo has taken a vow of chastity, so the knowledge of sex is also forbidden to him.

I will pass over the details of Frollo’s attempts to deride and also seduce Esmeralda, but his interest in her transforms him metaphorically into a type of supernatural being. As he realizes the lust he has for her, a woman and a gypsy whom he should otherwise abhor, he realizes the relationship between love and hate, and how his position in society has caused him to turn love into hate.

“As he thus delved into his soul, when he saw what spacious provision nature had made in it for passions, he laughed all the more bitterly. He stirred up all the hatred, all the malice in his innermost heart, and recognized, with the cool eye of a physician examining a patient, that this hatred and malice was nothing but vitiated love; that love, source of every human virtue, could, in a priest’s heart, turn into something horrible, and that a man constituted like him, by becoming a priest became a devil. Then he gave a dreadful laugh, and suddenly paled again as he contemplated the most sinister aspect of his fatal passion, of that corrosive, poisonous, hateful, implacable love whose only outcome had been the gallows for one of them, hell for the other: she condemned, he damned.” (Book 9, Chapter 1)

We can almost feel sorry for Frollo here. Had he not had to take his unnatural vow of chastity, he could have married and had release from his lust. Had he sought after good things rather than the philosopher’s stone, he might not have isolated himself from mankind. Now his love for Esmeralda has made him into a devil, a type of supernatural being. Esmeralda recognizes this when he visits her in her cell, calling him a “monster.” In response, he begs for mercy:

“‘Mercy! mercy!’ murmured the priest, pressing his lips to her shoulders.

“She seized his bald head in both hands by his remaining hair, and strove to ward off his kisses as if they had been bites.

“‘Mercy!’ the wretched man repeated. ‘If you knew what my love for you is like! It’s fire, molten lead, thousands of knives in my heart!’

“And he held her arms still with superhuman strength. Distraught, she said: ‘Let me go, or I’ll spit in your face!’

“He let her go: ‘Degrade me, hit me, be vicious! Do whatever you like! But mercy! love me!’”

(Book 9, Chapter 6)

Here we see how Esmeralda has Frollo under her spell as if she is the one with the supernatural power, and he must beg mercy from her, yet she calls him a monster and she avoids his kisses as if they are bites, and just a few lines later, she does call him a “vampire.” He meanwhile holds her with superhuman strength—an attribute Quasimodo also shares.

Later, in one of the novel’s most vividly Gothic scenes, Pierre Gringoire (Esmeralda’s playwright husband) and Frollo try to rescue her and escape with her on a boat. Frollo is disguised by a hood and long robe, so that Esmeralda does not know him. As he rows the boat, he fills her with fear:

“He could be dimly seen in the bows of the boat, like a spectre in the dark. His hood, still lowered, had the effect of a kind of mask, and each time he opened his arms as he rowed, with the wide black sleeves hanging down, they looked like two huge batwings.” (Book 11, Chapter 1). Readers of classical literature here might liken him to Charon, who ferries the dead to hell, but more modern readers will think of the Phantom of the Opera, ferrying Christine to his underground cavern. The bat wings also again stir up the idea of a vampire here.

Finally, Frollo carries another mark of the Gothic wanderer: The Mark of Cain. In the Bible, God curses Cain by placing a mark on his forehead after he murders his brother. In Gothic literature, the Wandering Jew also frequently has a mark on his forehead for his transgression in refusing to let Chris rest on the way to Calvary. However, Frollo’s Mark of Cain is largely undeserved. Krailshemer says, “Frollo, now raving mad and made more so by the news of Jehan’s death, indirectly caused by his rejection of his brother, has to bear the mark of Cain to add to all his other crimes.” (However, Jehan is a drunkard and Frollo has simply refused to give him more money and support his bad habits—we would call it tough love today.) Later, Jehan joins the attack on the cathedral to rescue Esmeralda, which Quasimodo mistakes as an attempt to capture and kill her, so he ends up killing Jehan during the attack. Frollo learns of his brother’s death but does not seem to know Quasimodo killed Jehan.

Frollo himself plants the mark upon his forehead, talking to himself in horror after he learns of his brother’s death:

“He fell silent for a moment, then went on, as though talking to himself, in a loud voice: ‘Cain, what have you done with your brother?’ There was another silence, then he continued: ‘What have I done with him, Lord? I took him in, I brought him up, I fed him, I loved him, I idolized him, and I killed him! Yes, Lord, they have just now dashed his head before my eyes against the stones of your house, and it is because of me, because of this woman, because of her….’” (Book 11, Chapter 1).

After Frollo dies, and Quasimodo has been seen sending him to his death, we are told:

Many rumours went round concerning this incident. There was no doubt in people’s minds that the day had come when, in accordance with their pact, Quasimodo, that is the devil, was to carry off Claude Frollo, that is the sorcerer. It was supposed that he had shattered the body as he took the soul, as monkeys break the shell to eat the nut.

That is why the archdeacon was not interred in consecrated ground. (Book 11, Chapter 3)

This is the final suggestion of Frollo’s supernatural nature and again links him to vampires because he cannot rest in consecrated ground.

 

Esmeralda

Esmeralda is herself a type of Gothic wanderer, as are gypsies for being outcasts of society. The Parisians even go so far as to make Esmeralda nonhuman, believing she is a “supernatural” creature, and comparing her to a salamander, a nymph, and a goddess (Book 2, Chapter 3). Of course, all these words are translations from the French, but the supernatural element is still there. However, little does Esmeralda realize she is even an outcast among the outcasts, for she is not even a gypsy but a French child stolen from its mother.

Quasimodo and Esmeralda played by Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in the 1939 film.

In Book VIII, Chapter 3, Esmeralda is even referred to as a “vampire” because she is a gypsy and consequently must be a child-stealer. Krailshemer translates the French as “vampire” but the word is actually “stryga,” which can also mean witch. In Albanian folklore, the styrga is a vampiric witch that sucks the blood of children. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shtriga)

Ironically, Esmeralda is cursed by her own mother, who calls her a child-stealer because she is a gypsy and because her own child was stolen by gypsies, only to learn later that Esmeralda is the child who was stolen. Esmeralda’s mother then tries to hide her when she is being pursued so she can be hanged. Esmeralda, however, believes she hears the voice of Phoebus, the man she loves, calls out his name, and thereby reveals her whereabouts, thus leading to her capture and eventual death. Her inability to overcome her passion for Phoebus, who is anything but a hero, and nothing more than a womanizer, brings about her downfall. While her love for Phoebus is not described as lust in the way Frollo’s love for Esmeralda is, it amounts to the same thing—both characters bring about their own downfall because of their inability to control their human desires.

 

Quasimodo

Quasimodo, like Esmeralda, is also an outcast, not because of his race but because of his deformity. Later, however, we will learn he is a gypsy child, traded like a halfing child, for a French child, which also implies a supernatural element, since halfings were the children of fairies traded for human children. His name itself means “half-made” suggesting like halflings he is only half-human. At the same time, Quasimodo is described as the child of a “sow” and a “Jew” (Book 4, Chapter 1), making him half-animal as well as half-human, though being part-Jewish would make him even less than half-human since in the Middle Ages, Jews were believed to have horns and be akin to the devil.

Later, Quasimodo displays superhuman, though not supernatural powers. Besides his incredible strength, he is very nimble and able to climb up the façade of the cathedral (Book 4, Chapter 3), which the modern reader will see as resembling the skills of Spiderman and which also is a precursor to Count Dracula. In fact, we have here the seeds of the future superhero character embedded in the Gothic.

That Quasimodo was adopted by Frollo, believed to be a sorcerer, adds to his supernatural nature. The people of Paris claim Quasimodo must serve Frollo for a set number of years, and then he will be given a soul, in a sort of reverse Faustian pact.

In an extended passage, Hugo describes Frollo and Quasimodo’s relationship:

“We must say, however, that the sciences of Egypt, necromancy, magic, even of the whitest and most innocent kind, had no enemy more relentless, no one who denounced them more inexorably to the officiality of Notre-Dame. Whether this was from genuine horror or the play-acting of the thief shouting: ‘Stop thief!’, it did not prevent the archdeacon being regarded by the learned heads in the chapter as a soul who had ventured into the antechamber of hell, lost in the caverns of the Kabbala, groping in the darkness of the occult sciences. The people made no mistake about it either; for anyone with a little sense Quasimodo was the demon, Claude Frollo the sorcerer. It was obvious that the bell-ringer had to serve the archdeacon for a given time, at the end of which he would carry off his soul by way of payment.” (Book 4, Chapter 5)

In short, Frollo is Faust to Quasimodo’s Mephistopheles.

While their bond is not supernatural in truth, Quasimodo does reverence Frollo for how the man saved him. However, both Frollo and Quasimodo have a love for Esmeralda that supersedes their love for each other. Indeed, there seems to be something Oedipal or Freudian here. Quasimodo seeks to kill his father-figure to be with the woman his father desires, although calling Esmeralda a mother figure might be going too far. In any case, after Quasimodo sends Frollo to his death, Quasimodo cries out, “Oh! all I have loved!” (Book 11, Chapter 2) in the realization that everyone he has loved is dead.

In the end, Quasimodo makes his way to the sepulcher where Esmeralda is buried, and there he wraps his fingers around hers and gives up his life so he can spend eternity with her, although she is dead and unable to know he is there with her.

The death of Claude Frollo, an early illustration.

 

Existential Ending

In the end, love is unrequited for all the characters, and all the characters have let their love or lust lead to their committing actions that have brought about their deaths.

Hugo has created a fatalistic world. There is no free will in it, for the characters are unable to stop themselves from acting as they do. Instead, we might call Hugo’s novel an early example of naturalism, and in the end, it is a very existential novel as well.

While earlier Gothic novels, even while often deriding Catholicism, worked within a Christian structure where the good are rewarded and the bad punished, it is too simplistic to describe anyone in this novel as good or bad. Even Frollo, who is the villain if there is one, had kind intentions in raising his brother after his parents had died and in caring for Quasimodo when no one else would. Yet in the end, any good in his nature is overcome by his uncontrollable lust. Despite the setting in Notre Dame, there is little about God in this novel. As Krailshemer says, “The most notable omission from the book is Christianity.” Consequently, what makes the novel most Gothic of all is the horror that life is meaningless and no matter what we do, death is the end. None of the characters go to their graves repenting their sins or having hope in redemption.

_________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

4 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic

4 responses to “Gothic Existentialism in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris

  1. ellenandjim

    Thank you for these comments, Tyler. I’m not writing a blog myself because I feel I have not made sense of the book. I feel one must see it as a historical novel or romance with gothic elements. Your quotation from the scene between Claude Frollo and Esmeralda reminds me of scenes between the character Radcliffe’s priest villain in The Italian, Schedoni. I agree at core Hugo in this book is deeply disillusioned, sceptical, atheistic (un-religious altogether), but I don’t feel that is what Hugo is getting at. The cathedral is central; it is the house, the outward manifestation of Quasimodo and Claude, but I’m not sure what Hugo wants me to take from this — as as a building it’s neutral space controlled by whomever has great power.

  2. Pingback: Rookwood: The Gothic Family Plot Taken to the Extreme | The Gothic Wanderer

  3. Pingback: Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris and Trollope’s La Vendee: two novels exploring French history & the 1939 film masterpiece | Ellen And Jim Have A Blog, Two

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