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Pretty much everyone in Paris is in love with Esmeralda.
Actually, that's not quite true. People either love her or hate for being a witch, or both. Really, though, Esmeralda is just a sixteen-year-old girl trying to navigate through a mean world. She wonders who her parents are, she naïvely falls in love for the first time, and she performs good deeds when she can—while trying to brush off her two haters, Frollo and the Sack Woman.
Unfortunately, such a good person is destined for tragedy in this novel.
Like Quasimodo, Esmeralda has mesmerized readers for as long as this novel has been around. Some of the earliest adaptations of the novel to opera and ballet where actually just called La Esmeralda, just to give you an idea of how popular of a figure she was (after all, why should Quasimodo hog the spotlight?). She's totally one of the most popular gypsies in literary history.
What makes Esmeralda so cool? Well, she's got a lot going for her.
• She has a mysterious past. Who were her parents? Where did she come from?
• She has a mysterious present. What kind of person is she? How does her goat know so many tricks? Is she in cahoots with the devil?
Esmeralda's also a completely innocent bystander who gets wrapped up in everything against her will (you have the hand of fate to thank for that). She's also, like Quasimodo, one of the few genuinely good characters in the novel. She has her flaws, like her blind devotion to Phœbus (who can't even remember her name), but given all the stuff she's up against—lecherous priests, racism against gypsies, sorcery accusations—we think she deserves our support.
Esmeralda is the yin to Quasimodo's yang: people just can't stop talking about how beautiful she is. Just as Quasimodo's defined by his looks, Esmeralda's defined by hers—but not in the positive ways that you might assume. After all, her looks win her the licentious attentions of Phœbus and Frollo.
Now, that's a problem for more reasons than one, but what gets Esmeralda in the most trouble may be that fact that she's so naïve about love. For example, early on in the book, after Esmeralda saves Gringoire by marrying him, we hear her expressing her views on love:
"Oh! Love!" she said, and her voice trembled, and her eye sparkled. "It is to be two and yet but one—it is a man and a woman melting into an angel—it is heaven itself." (II.VII.35)
Sound corny? It's meant to. Esmeralda might be street smart, but that doesn't mean that she isn't susceptible to the same desire for love as everybody else. So when she meets a player like Phœbus, it's not surprising that she eats up every word he feeds her. Let's not even start on Frollo.
Esmeralda's looks earn her a ton of unwanted attention. Mostly, this comes from Frollo, who is so taken by her beauty that he attributes it to the devil and sets out to either possess her or destroy her. But Esmeralda's appearance also earns her the animosity of the jealous Fleur-de-Lis and her friends. Basically, Esmeralda ends up suffering for her looks in the same way Quasimodo does.
See what we mean by yin and yang? Quasimodo and Esmeralda may look like total opposites, but in the end their differences make them oddly similar.
Hugo didn't just make Esmeralda a gypsy so that she could dance around with a tambourine. In medieval French society, gypsies were considered outsiders. People had all of these misconceptions about where they came from (hence all the mentions of Egypt) and what they believed in (witchcraft, apparently).
Esmeralda is the quintessential exotic Other, which is a term for a person who is made to be ethnically, racially, religiously, or culturally different from the norm (in European literature, usually white and Christian). Just look at Gringoire's reaction on first meeting her:
"In truth," thought Gringoire, "she is a magical creature, a nymph, a goddess, a bacchanae of Mount Menelaeus!" At that moment one of the magical creature's tresses came loose, and a piece of yellow brass that had been fastened to it fell to the ground. "But no," he said," she is a gypsy!" The illusion was shattered. (II.III.6)
Talk about an abrupt shift. We're supposed to see Gringoire's racism as pretty representative of what your average run-of-the-moulin Parisian thinks about gypsies. People are both fascinated and repelled by the gypsies—just think about the story the ladies tell about Paquette la Chantefleurie. In that story, everyone goes to get their fortunes told, but then they have no problem assuming that all gypsies are a bunch of Satan-worshipping baby-eaters.
Looks like it's all fun and games until gypsies start eating babies.
Because Esmeralda is a gypsy outsider, it makes it a lot easier for people like Frollo and the Sack Woman to accuse her of heinous crimes, like sorcery and kidnapping. It's one of the things that makes her a tragic figure, but it also gives her something in common with Quasimodo: neither of them are accepted within Parisian society. That's why reason why they make such a good "couple" at the end of the novel.
One of the saddest aspects about Esmeralda the way she becomes more and more powerless as the novel goes on. In one of her first scenes, she's all stepping forward to save Gringoire's life out of sheer compassion, even wielding a dagger like the free-spirited Miss Independent that she is. She even gives the slip to Phœbus when he first rescues her. In short, helpless she is not.
But things go downhill for Esmeralda pretty quickly. She's accused of murdering Phœbus; she's tortured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death; and in the end, she's completely in Frollo's power. Well, almost. She's defiant toward Frollo to the very end, choosing death instead of sexual enslavement to him:
She tore herself from his clasp and fell at the foot of the gallows and kissed the deadly contraption; then, half-turning her head, she looked over her shoulder at the priest. The priest stood like a statue, motionless, his finger still raised towards the gallows.
"This horrified me less than you," the gypsy said at last. (XI.I.51-52)
There are times when Esmeralda strikes us as the typical beautiful maiden in need of manly rescuing, but this moment is not one of them. Esmeralda may be completely at Frollo's mercy, but we shouldn't forget that initial image of her when she was free and capable of taking care of herself.
If there's one thing The Hunchback of Notre-Dame shows us, it's that good, strong, loving people, and independent people can be struck down just as easily as anyone else. In fact, they may be even more likely than most to face destruction. Not a happy thought, but it's something to think about.