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Quasimodo is the hunchback—you know, the one from the title. He's deformed, he's ostracized, and he's the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame.
He's also got a heart of gold, if you'd just give him a chance to prove it.
There have been so many representations of Quasimodo in pop culture it's ridiculous. We're not just talking about the Disney movie either, which, for all of its awesome musical numbers, totally G-rates the story. (What, you mean all that death at the end of the novel is too much for toddlers? Pshaw).
There's just something about Quasimodo's grotesqueness that captures peoples' imaginations. Early filmmakers found him really appealing, as well; we're guessing they were jumping at the chance to try and create the ugliest person imaginable, which is what Lon Chaney attempted in 1923. The image of him clambering up the sides of the great cathedral with Esmeralda dangling off his back is pretty much iconic.
But if you think that pop culture has taught you everything you need to know about The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, think again. Most people assume that Quasimodo is the protagonist of the novel, and in many adaptations,he is. But we think of him as sharing the stage with a number of protagonists (see our "Character Role Identification" section to learn why).
Still, one thing is for certain: more than for anyone else, we feel compelled to root for this guy. Maybe it's because he can't seem to get a break, what with that unsightly visage and all. Maybe it's because everyone loves a character who's misunderstood. Or maybe it's because, out of all the characters in the novel, we feel like Quasimodo is the only one capable of pure, genuine love. He's the ultimate ugly-on-the outside, beautiful-on-the-inside character. Even Disney can't make him escape his looks.
How could you not feel for this guy?
Quasimodo's defining feature is his ugliness—and we mean defining, as in his entire character is based around the idea of his ugliness. On a literal level, we can use the explanation that the narrator gives us: "He was, in truth, bad because he was wild; he was wild because he was ugly" (IV.III.10). In other words, all that demonization has made him into something of a real demon. But remember, all it takes is one act of kindness from Esmeralda to totally flip that around.
On a broader level, Quasimodo's extreme ugliness means that he will never find love. See, there is a difference between an unattractive character and a character like Quasimodo: Hugo chose to create a character so grotesque that Esmeralda can't even bear to be in the same room as him. The people of Paris automatically despise him. Basically, his appearance is an insurmountable barrier.
Yet unlike Frollo, this knowledge that he's never going to be in a relationship doesn't turn Quasimodo into some kind of lustful, obsessive monster. Instead, Esmeralda's one act of kindness while he's on the pillory turns him into an incredibly compassionate and caring person. As he says when Esmeralda asks why he rescued her,
"You have forgotten a wretch who tried one night to carry you off, a wretch to whom, the very next day, you brought relief on the vile pillory […] You have forgotten that wretch—but he has not forgotten." (IX.III.13)
This kind of generosity is not lost on poor Quasimodo. Considering how this is one of the few acts of kindness he has ever received in his life, it's not too surprising that he would be way more interested in reciprocating that kindness than he would be in fulfilling a possessive sexual desire, as Frollo does.
It's this refusal to be the monster that society thinks he is that allows Quasimodo to at least momentarily transcend his ugliness. Remember that it's when Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda that he is described as "really beautiful":
Yes, he was beautiful—he, that orphan, that foundling, that outcast; he felt himself august and strong; he looked in the face that society from which he was banished, and in which he had so powerfully intervened. (VIII.VI.105)
When Quasimodo asserts that he is beyond the rules and customs of society (society has done nothing good for him, anyway), he is able to be something other than what society has always defined him as. Yes, Quasimodo is more than just an ugly face.
Hollywood might love a happy ending, but having Quasimodo ride off into the sunset is not on Hugo's agenda. The fact of the matter is that it's pretty much impossible to conceive of any kind of positive outcome for the poor hunchback. He's never going to get the girl—even the Disney movie didn't attempt to convince us that it was plausible—and it's hard to imagine all of Paris having a sudden change of heart and deciding unanimously that beauty is on the inside. Nope, that's all way too happy for this novel.
That doesn't mean, though, that Quasimodo can't teach us, the readers, a little thing or two about love.
Because Quasimodo is the most unlikely candidate for love, he's also the perfect character to teach us something about its nature. He uses his last line of dialogue to do just that: gesturing at the dead bodies of Esmeralda and Frollo, he cries out, "There is all I ever loved!" (XI.II.30). One person he did everything to protect; the other person he killed. Love is complicated.
But let's start from the beginning. The Festival of Fools is "the first gratification of self-love that [Quasimodo] had ever experienced. Until then he had encountered nothing but humiliation, contempt for his condition, and disgust for his person" (II.III.23). It's telling that the only time Quasimodo feels accepted is when people are praising him for being the ugliest person around. Even here, people are totally focused on what Quasimodo looks like on the outside. Once the festivities are over, they're just going to go back to treating him as they always have.
Later, we also learn about the master-servant relationship that Quasimodo has with Frollo in the chapter "The Dog and His Master" (IV.IV). We're starting to get a picture of someone so starved for love that any kind of positive attention is good attention.
But that doesn't stop Quasimodo from knowing real kindness when he sees it, and he sees it in Esmeralda on the day she gives him some water on the pillory. But his newfound love for Esmeralda is not possessive, lustful, or jealous. It's selfless, through and through. Heck, he even offers to throw himself off of the cathedral towers for her just so she won't have to look at him.
But Quasimodo's devotion to Frollo and his devotion to Esmeralda are bound to collide. The first challenge arises when Frollo tries to rape Esmeralda in her cell. Quasimodo proceeds to kick the tar out of him, but as soon as he realizes that the assailant is in fact his master, here's what he does:
Quasimodo looked at him, was seized with a trembling, relaxed his grasp, and started back […]
Quasimodo stood for a moment with bowed head, and then, falling on his knees before the door of the gypsy, said, "Monseigneur," in a tone of gravity and resignation, "kill me first, and do what you please afterward." (IX.VI.21-22)
Old habits die hard. Even Frollo's clearly nefarious intentions can't make Quasimodo disobey him. Quasimodo remembers how Frollo acted kindly by adopting him, and he's fiercely loyal to those who have been kind to him.
This incident makes us worry, though, that when it comes down to it, maybe Quasimodo's slavishness towards Frollo overrides Esmeralda's compassion. But the scales do eventually tip, and when Quasimodo sees Frollo bark out a laugh at Esmeralda's death, he recognizes that his master is no longer a person at all capable of love.
That's because Quasimodo realizes that true love comes from kindness—and he is not the kind of character to take acts of kindness for granted. His love might be too ideal for the real world to handle, but as an outsider, he's the one to at least give us a glimpse of it.