Hugo’s first major novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, is considered one of the most significant historical romances in French literature. Important in the context of Hugo’s career as a statement of his developing aesthetic and social ideas, Notre-Dame de Paris is also recognized as an intellectually and emotionally powerful romantic tragedy. Critics have especially praised the novel for its masterful depiction of medieval Paris, its intricately ordered narrative, and its memorable portraits of such stock romantic characters as the gentle monster, the evil cleric, and the beautiful, orphaned heroine. Already an acclaimed poet and dramatist at the time of its publication, Hugo gained a still greater audience with Notre-Dame de Paris, becoming one of the few authors to achieve comparable success in three significant genres.
Notre-Dame de Paris is essentially a romantic tragedy. The story concerns the lust of the evil archdeacon Claude Frollo for Esmeralda, an innocent gypsy dancing girl, who, through a simple but kind action, has gained the love of Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell ringer of Notre-Dame cathedral. Spurned by Esmeralda, who is herself in love with Phoebus de Châteaupers, a handsome scoundrel, Frollo conspires to have her arrested and convicted as a witch. As her execution approaches, Quasimodo rescues the girl, giving her refuge in the cathedral tower. In a scene often praised for its great dramatic power, a crowd of Parisian commoners attacks the cathedral in an attempt to liberate Esmeralda from Quasimodo, whose noble motives are unknown to the throng. Frollo intercedes, delivering Esmeralda to the civil authorities, and the novel ends tragically with a description of Esmeralda and Quasimodo embracing in death.
In researching Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo studied several chronicles of medieval life, borrowing historical details and names for his characters from annals of the period. Hoping to render the atmosphere of medieval Paris naturally and artistically rather than produce a dispassionate historical report, Hugo incorporated various devices intended to enhance the historical atmosphere of the novel, including archaic diction and grammar and frequent description of Gothic art and architecture. The vibrancy and acuity of his portrait have elicited frequent praise from reviewers, one of whom wrote: “It seems as if we were but listening to [Hugo’s] reminiscences of the time of Louis XI. To put old Paris before our eyes appears to be rather an act of memory than an act of study, and he sets it forth with a freshness which sparkles in the fancy.”
While composing Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo followed the Romantic precepts he had defined in 1827 in the preface to his historical verse drama Cromwell, and commentators often refer to that preface in their discussions of the novel. One of the most important principles put forth in that essay concerns the necessity of portraying the grotesque as well as the beautiful. Hugo viewed the grotesque as the complement of the sublime, and considered fidelity to the multifarious nature of creation to be one of the underlying tenets of literary composition. His comments on the place of the grotesque in literature are often recalled in discussions of Notre-Dame de Paris that emphasize his tragic portrait of the hunchback, Quasimodo. However, many critics contend that the translation title by which the book is best known to English-speaking readers, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and the popular film version[s] of the novel have focused unwarranted attention on Quasimodo. Citing the novel’s original title, they have maintained that the cathedral itself occupies the central position in the work and that its hybrid architecture–a combination of Gothic and Romanesque elements–serves as a model of the composite nature of the novel. According to one critic: “What is Gothic in the cathedral is dramatic in the novel; what is Romanesque in the cathedral is epic in the novel.” Such a fusion accords with the aesthetic theory developed by Hugo in the preface to Cromwell; rejecting classical models, which demand purity of construction, Hugo considered a mixture of themes and styles necessary to achieve literary completeness.
According to Hugo, the composition of the novel was in part the result of his discovery of the Greek word anankè carved into a wall in Notre-Dame cathedral. Variously translated as “fate,” “fatality,” “destiny,” “necessity,” and “doom,” anankè is recognized by critics as a guiding force in the novel, and Hugo himself announced in his preface that “C’est sur ce mot qu’on a fait ce livre” (“It is on this word that I made this book”). Throughout Notre-Dame de Paris, elaborate images demonstrate Hugo’s belief that the pursuit of such intangible goals as knowledge, love, and truth is invariably obstructed by the forces of destiny. A second theoretical concern in the novel is Hugo’s concept of the relationship between architecture and literature. He maintained that before the invention of the printing press, the architecture of a society served as its literature, embodying everything important and particular to that society, including its ideal of beauty, understanding of the universe, and greatest ideas. The advent of printing transformed “literature,” in Hugo’s view, from a destructible to an indestructible art: buildings were usually one-of-a-kind structures that could be easily destroyed; printed materials, however, were produced in great quantities and widely disseminated. In Notre-Dame de Paris Hugo used this argument in an effort to convince his contemporaries to preserve architectural works as the literature of past ages, rather than destroy them through neglect or clumsy restoration.
Conceived during a turbulent period in French history and completed in the months immediately following the tumultuous July Revolution of 1830, Notre-Dame de Paris also embodies Hugo’s views on numerous social and political issues, most notably on the development of the common people as a significant political force. The character of Jacques Coppenole, a Flemish visitor to the court of Louis XI, serves as a representative of the common people and an exponent of Hugo’s democratic ideals in the novel. In an important scene in the Bastille with the king, for example, Coppenole hears the sounds of the crowd gathering to attack the cathedral and prophetically warns the king that while the hour of the people has not yet arrived, it will come. As in his previous novel Le dernier jour d’un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned), Hugo also expressed in Notre-Dame de Paris his abhorrence of capital punishment and his belief that even in a society professing equality under the law, the poor remain oppressed.
Contemporary French reviewers were generally unimpressed by the novel when it was published. Researchers have attributed this unenthusiastic response to the partisan concerns of various groups of critics, including those who objected to the absence of religion in the novel and those who believed that Hugo had slighted the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, Notre-Dame de Paris gained a wide audience among the novel-buying public and followers of the Romantic movement. In England, many early critics praised Hugo’s vivid portrayal of Parisian life in the Middle Ages and the artfulness with which he forged the melodramatic, tragic plot, but expressed concerns over the violence and unpleasantness of the novel. As social and moral interpretations of the novel gave way in the following century to more insightful analyses detailing its elaborate construction and complex philosophical basis, Notre-Dame de Paris gained a critical reputation as the first great historical romance in French literature. At the same time, the novel became a worldwide popular success, inspiring translations into more than twenty languages. In the words of one critic, Notre-Dame de Paris is a “great book, a magnificent book most unquestionably, a book before which the critic may fitly throw down all his small artillery of carpings and quibblings, and stand disarmed and reverent.”
-- From the entry “Victor Hugo [masked])” in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, eds. Janet Mullane and Robert Thomas Wilson, vol. 21. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1989), pp. 189-190. To download the full text of this entry (over forty pages) as a .pdf document, navigate to just below the blue “Read the Classics” banner at the top of this page, find the “more” tab, and then find the appropriate document under the “files” menu.