Study Guide

The Invention of Hugo Cabret Themes

  • Awe and Amazement

    In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo’s got quite the hard knock life for such a little boy—he has to work on clocks, he lives in a train station, he’s orphaned, and the list goes on. But he still somehow finds the time and optimism to be in awe of things. And no wonder! He’s experiencing the magic of film, automatons, and meeting a real live magician. If there’s anything that this book is about, it’s about magic—and how you can always be amazed by it, even if your life has gone to the wolves.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. What’s so amazing about a little robot man who can write anyway?
    2. What’s the connection between magic and film in the story?
    3. How do all those pictures make you feel as a reader? Do they make the story a little more special (or at least easier to get through)?
    4. What's the most awe-inspiring thing in the book?

    Chew on This

    The mechanical man is pretty awe inspiring, but it’s just a piece of rubbish until Hugo picks it up and starts to work on it. In other words, Hugo makes it awe-inspiring.

    Georges Méliès finds magic in film, but there’s magic to be found in everyday life, too. After all, Hugo and Isabelle find it as they’re looking out over the city of Paris at night.

  • Friendship

    It’s probably putting it lightly to say that Hugo doesn’t have too many friends. And when he finally does meet someone his age—Isabelle—they don’t get off to the best start. There are a lot of accusations flying back and forth and they always seem to be running away from each other or yelling. Talk about drama! But despite their rocky beginnings, they can’t help but rely on each other as they embark on the adventure of figuring out Papa Georges’s secrets. So it's no wonder then, that by the end of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, these two aren't just friends. They're family.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. How important is friendship to Hugo at the beginning of the story? How important is it to him at the end? 
    2. What’s the relationship between Isabelle and Hugo like? How does it change? 
    3. Do you think it makes Papa Georges sad that he is no longer in contact with any of his old filmmaking friends?

    Chew on This

    Hugo sets out to fix the automaton as a kind of stand-in friend, but in the process, he discovers real, human friends.

    Georges Méliès forges a kind of friendship with Hugo based off of mutual interests and a love of magic, even if they don’t initially act like they like each other.

  • Family

    Poor Hugo. In The invention of Hugo Cabret, he doesn’t have the best track record with family; after all, he’s orphaned and his Uncle Claude was a real jerk, if we do say so ourselves. He’s pretty much got no one left when we meet him, which is very sad for a little boy who should be in school and getting proper nutritional lunches without having to steal. You could say that Isabelle doesn’t have a family either… except she has Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne, who are her godparents and care for her as their own child. And when Hugo comes across their motley little family unit, somehow he becomes a part of it all too.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does the absence of family affect Hugo? How does it change him once he gets a family? 
    2. Isabelle doesn’t have any parents, but she has Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne. How is her relationship with them the same or different from usual parent-child relations?
    3. What kind of family member is Uncle Claude?

    Chew on This

    Hugo is isolated because he has no family and doesn’t know whom to turn to in the train station.

    Even though Isabelle is orphaned, she still has a loving family, and that is something that Hugo envies.

  • Transformation

    It’s true that Hugo transforms over the course of The Invention of Hugo Cabret—after all, we see actual images of him as a boy, and then as a boy with a haircut who looks older and more put together. But there are a lot of other transformations going on in the book, if you care to look hard enough. Georges Méliès transforms from a lonely, bitter old man to someone who embraces both his past and his future. And Hugo transforms from a lonely orphan to a well-loved member of a family. Even the automaton transforms from a pile of junk outside a burnt-down museum to a beautiful, amazing contraption.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. How does Hugo change throughout the book?
    2. Does the automaton undergo a process of transformation as it is repaired?
    3. How is film transformative for the characters in the book?
    4. What brings about Papa Georges's transformation?

    Chew on This

    Over the course of the book, Georges Méliès transforms from a tired old man back into the exciting magician he used to be because Hugo reminds him of what it means to truly be yourself.

    The automaton and the quest to fix it transform Hugo, if not into a man, then at least a more mature boy.

  • Memory and the Past

    For a man who works at the train station, Georges Méliès sure has a problem with baggage in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And no, we’re not talking about literal suitcases or backpacks; we’re talking about Papa Georges’s past as a renowned filmmaker… and how he just can’t face any of it. The whole book deals with Hugo and Isabelle trying to chase down Papa Georges’s past while Papa Georges resolutely continues to run away from it. Of course, everything catches up to him in the end, but boy does he put up a real fight.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why is Georges Méliès so intent on avoiding his past? What’s he running away from?
    2. What do you make of how in the end it is revealed that Hugo is speaking to us as an adult? Does the knowledge that this entire book is a memory of sorts change things for you?
    3. What do you think happened to Hugo during the six months between when he was living at the train station, and when he moved in with George Méliès?

    Chew on This

    Georges Méliès is constantly trying to avoid the past. But in doing so, he gets even more stuck in it.

    The adult Hugo who is speaking to us at the end has come so far because of all the things that he learned over time from his two father figures: his actual father and Georges Méliès.

  • Isolation

    Georges Méliès used to be a legend (in fact, is still a legend) in the film industry, and yet he doesn’t talk to anyone that he used to work with. He doesn’t watch any of his old movies. In fact, people think he’s dead. So you might say he’s been exiled from his own past. But it's a self-imposed exile, and it takes quite a bit of prodding to nudge him out of his isolation and into the world again. Good thing Hugo and Isabelle are up to the task. And in the end, that's what The Invention of Hugo Cabret is all about—the togetherness that family and friends bring, even to the loneliest of people.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. What’s the deal with Papa Georges? Why doesn’t he have any friends? Why does he exile himself?
    2. Why does Hugo get so nervous whenever he leaves the train station? Is he in an exile of sorts?
    3. Why is Mama Jeanne so intent on keeping out visitors and people who know that Papa Georges was a filmmaker?

    Chew on This

    Papa Georges locks himself away and brings his own misery upon himself.

    Hugo may run from the Station Inspector, but in the way, the train station is already a kind of prison for him—one that’s all too hard to leave.

  • Art and Culture

    Mais, oui. Where better to discuss art and culture than in a book that’s set in Paris, France? Seriously though, The Invention of Hugo Cabret touches on some serious high culture, considering it's a book meant for kids. From old school black and white film to a painting of Prometheus, the book doesn’t shy away from the idea that art can change your life for the better. It can also grip you and give you a purpose, which is what it does for Georges Méliès, Hugo, and even the automatons. Art and culture, in this novel, bring people together and help create a family. That's pretty powerful stuff.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. How important is film to Hugo and Papa Georges? What is it about the movies that captivates them so much? 
    2. Do movies hold more than a sentimental value to Hugo, who seems to associate them with his father? 
    3. How is the book a piece of culture and art in itself?

    Chew on This

    Film and magic are Papa Georges' purposes in life, and without them, he is not as whole of an individual.

    The book explores the idea that it’s important to expose children to different art forms early on.

  • Truth

    If the saying goes, “The truth will set you free,” then Hugo and Isabelle must really be jonesing for some freedom, because they are unrelenting in their search for the truth about the automaton and about Papa Georges in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. What they find is more fantastic than they ever dreamed. Not only is Papa Georges not dead (like the books say!), but also he’s also a famous filmmaker, magician, and all around awesome guy. Who woulda thought?

    Questions About Truth

    1. What is the “truth” that Hugo and Isabelle are searching for when it comes to Papa Georges? And why do they want to learn that truth?
    2. Why is Hugo so intent on figuring out what the automaton does?
    3. Why does everyone in the book have to have so many secrets?

    Chew on This

    Hugo sets out to figure out what the automaton does, but in the end, he really discovers a lot more about the people he knows (Méliès and Isabelle) and how important they are to him.

    Even though Méliès is initially sick with the idea of his secret past being revealed, in the end the truth is what allows him to move forward.