Read an Excerpt
From Isabel Roche's Introduction to The Hunchback of Notre Dame
In the case of Quasimodo, the central duality is that of the opposing poles of the sublime and the grotesque. From the beginning to the end of the novel, his physical incompleteness leaves him hopelessly suspended between the states of man and animal. Quasimodo is defined by his animal-like strength (proven in numerous scenes such as the early, failed abduction of Esmeralda and the assault on the cathedral) and by his animal-like mentality, which is at once a result of his incomplete intellectual faculties and a conditioned response to the (unkind) way he has been treated by those around him, save his "adopted" father, Claude Frollo, to whom he is completely devoted ("Quasimodo loved the archdeacon as no dog, no horse, no elephant, ever loved its master." But unlike the archdeacon, who is rigidly locked into his dual(ing) nature, Quasimodo is transfigured by Esmeralda's simple gesture of kindness to him during his torture on the pillory. All the difference is there. Indeed, from that moment on, Quasimodo undergoes an awakening, during which his dormant soul comes alive and expands exponentially, as witnessed in the scene in which Quasimodo—proud and glorious—swoops down from the top of the cathedral to save Esmeralda from being hanged: "For at that instant Quasimodo was truly beautiful. He was beautiful,—he, that orphan, that foundling, that outcast; he felt himself to be august and strong; he confronted that society from which he was banished . . . he,—the lowliest of creatures, with the strength of God." Quasimodo's devotion to Esmeralda supplants the cherished role previously held for Frollo, and he subsequently does everything in his power to ensure her safety and happiness. In attempting to repair her relationship with Phoebus, in warding off Frollo's unwanted visits, and in endeavoring to save Esmeralda from the "attackers," in whom he mistakenly perceives a threat to her safety, Quasimodo risks everything in Esmeralda's name.
Yet in the end this transfiguration, this conversion from grotesque to sublime—unobserved by Esmeralda, so caught up is she in Phoebus's aura of false brilliance—is of a profoundly personal nature and passes virtually unnoticed. It is the reader who is charged with recognizing its final expression in the account given in the novel's last chapter of two anonymous skeletons found sometime later in the vault at Montfaucon, locked in an embrace. Without naming them, the description leaves no doubt that one is Esmeralda (identifiable by the remnants of her white gown and the empty bag that once contained her childhood shoe) and the other is Quasimodo (identifiable by the remains of his hideously deformed body), who disappeared from the cathedral the day of Esmeralda's death. More remarkable than the embrace, however, is that the male skeleton's neck is intact, leading to the irrefutable conclusion that he came to the cave not already dead, but to die. The self-imposed nature of Quasimodo's death thus implies that the completion of this conversion must necessarily occur outside the boundaries of the social and historical world of the novel. For the only place where his opposing poles can be truly reconciled is in the cosmic whole; it is in leaving his shell of a body behind (it significantly crumbles into dust when separated from that of Esmeralda) that this awakened soul can take flight.
This message that redemption and salvation are possible, but never in the world as it exists now, is the thread that binds all of Hugo's novels together like a quilt whose squares, when viewed carefully, each reveal the same intricate pattern. Everything that is in The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be retraced, retold, reinvented in Hugo's four subsequent novels. Quasimodo's dilemma, his struggle between two opposing poles, will become that of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, that of Gilliatt in The Toilers of the Sea, that of Gwynplaine—another "monster" horrific on the outside and pure within-in The Man Who Laughs, and that of Gauvain in Ninety-three. Only through their deaths and a corresponding cosmic expansion or rebirth are Hugo's fictional heroes able to find acceptance, transcendence, reconciliation of their internal oppositions, and affirmation of their individual moral potential. Time and again, the message of Hugo's "new" novel is that historical existence as depicted, with its blindness, failures, and shortcomings, is incompatible with, or at the very least less significant than, the realization of this personal and often private promise.
In spite of Hugo's lingering hesitancy surrounding the genre—a thirty-year period of novelistic silence separates the wildly successful Hunchback of Notre Dame from Les Misérables—it is without a doubt the form best suited to the scope and breadth of his all-encompassing vision, one that, to his own mind, was not at all fatalistic. On the contrary, Hugo preferred to view his novels as a "series of affirmations of the soul" (Oeuvres complètes, vol. 14, p. 387; translation mine). While contemporary readers and critics did not always agree—citing The Hunchback of Notre Dame as particularly ambiguous in its meaning—Hugo's profound and overwhelming belief in both individual and collective man's potential for progress is perhaps more evident to us today. Indeed, while the inadequacies of each past society that he examines and of the present in which he wrote pervade Hugo's fiction, his presentation of core, universal truths relative to the human condition show an unwavering faith in the future, in our future, to which his aspirations for the historical and social worlds are deferred.