Study Guide

Phœbus in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

By Victor Hugo

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Phœbus, or Captain Phœbus de Châteaupers to use his full name, is the swaggering, crude, handsome, sex-driven soldier Esmeralda worships as if he really were the sun god (as his name suggests).

He isn't the nicest of guys, to say the least: he devotes most of his energy to getting down with the ladies. Yet despite getting stabbed, things don't turn out so badly for Phœbus in the end. Unlike most other characters in the novel, he avoids a violently tragic ending—unless, as the novel implies, you consider getting married a tragic ending.

Mr. Universe

Think of Phœbus as your ultimate frat bro: someone who spends a lot of time at the gym, doesn't use his brain too much, and gets a lot of female attention despite the fact that he's a total jerk. The novel gives pretty much this exact description of him:

By her side stood a young man, of a bold but somewhat vain and swaggering look—one of those handsome fellows to whom all the women take a liking, though the serious man and the physiognomist shrug their shoulders at them. (VII.I.3)

So Phœbus is a pretty face without much behind it. It's not very surprising, then, that he's also self-centered and shallow. Though Esmeralda might fall for his well-rehearsed declarations of undying love, commitment isn't exactly on Phœbus's mind. Look at how he responds when Quasimodo tells him that a woman wants to meet with him:

"A rare imbecile," said the Captain, "to suppose that I am obliged to go to all the women who love me, or say they do. After all, perhaps she is like yourself with that owl's face. Tell her who sent you that I am going to be married, and that she may go to the devil." (IX.IV.37)

Phœbus obviously thinks the world of himself to assume that he's that hot of a commodity (though he probably really is that hot of a commodity).

Of course, the irony here is that there probably isn't a person in the novel less deserving of Esmeralda's love, and yet he's the one who gets it all. To the very end, Esmeralda is swooning and crying Phœbus's name. Remember Quasimodo's little example of the earthenware and crystal vases in Book IX.IV? Phœbus is totally the cracked vase with all the dead flowers inside—but how, his pretty face sure does take him a long way.

We don't mean to be overly pessimistic, but it really does seem as if in Hugo's world, the good people suffer while the shallow and nasty people ruin others' lives and walk away happily, obliviously scot-free.

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