Study Guide

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Fate and Free Will

By Victor Hugo

Fate and Free Will

"It is Fate!—Alas, Claude! You are the spider. Claude, you are the fly too! You did seek science, the light, the sunshine; you only wanted to reach the open air, the broad daylight of eternal truth. But while darting toward the dazzling window, which opens into the other world, a world of brightness, intelligence, and science, blind fly, silly doctor, you did not perceive that subtle spider's web, spread by Fate between the light and you; you rushed into it, and now, with mangled head and broken wings, you struggle in the iron grip of Fate!" (VII.V.29)

Okay, hold on a second. This metaphor of the spider and the fly is an important one: it sets up our entire understanding of fate for the novel. So what exactly is Frollo saying? He's saying that he is as much a victim of fate as Esmeralda is. He's also saying that fate is an awful thing that you can't avoid. A fly about to be eaten by a spider is not a very happy image, right? But the idea of a web is also important: it has connotations of being tangled, of not being able to get out even though you really want to, of being so close to freedom and yet so far away. It also suggests that people's fates are intertwined: no one's life is separate from other people's lives, and everyone influences everyone else. Note: this is not the last time you will hear of spiders and flies in the novel.

"Alas! Alas! It was Fate that caught you, and threw you among the terrible gears of the machine that I had secretly constructed." (VIII.IV.57)

This passage tells us a whole lot about how Frollo sees the world. Try as he might, it still takes a little bit of luck to lure Esmeralda into his trap. All the more reason why he should see the hand of fate behind it, right? This luck seems to justify his actions, at least in his mind. But there is definitely something strange about how the characters seem to be at all the right places at the right times; it really does seem as if the events in this novel are somehow inevitable. You might even say that we're supposed to take our cue from Frollo here and see fate's hand in everything.

And when he strove to picture to himself the happiness that he might have found on earth if she had not been a gypsy, and if he had not been a priest, if Phœbus had not existed, and if she had loved him; when he considered that a life of serenity and affection might have been possible for him, too, even him; that, at that very moment, there were here and there on the earth happy couples lost in long conversations under orange groves, on the banks of murmuring streams, in the presence of a setting sun, or of a starry sky, and that, if God had willed it, he might have formed with her one of those blessed couples, his heart dissolved in tenderness and despair. (IX.I.7)

Whoa, there sure are a whole lot of "ifs" in this sentence. Sure, if things had turned out perfectly, then Frollo might have been happily united with Esmeralda, but the point is that way too many things would have had to be different. Really, there was no way for Frollo to get with Esmeralda. Frollo's fate seems tragic partly because he seems fated never to have found love with anyone.

Again her eyes closed; she imagined that it was all over, that she had been executed during her swoon, and that the deformed spirit who had governed her destiny had seized and borne her away. (IX.II.6)

It's a bit unclear what Esmeralda means here by "the deformed spirit who governed her destiny." Does she mean Quasimodo? How has he governed her destiny so far? Or does she mean that when she sees Quasimodo's face, she automatically attaches it to the messed-up spirit that must govern her messed-up fate?

He thought of the miserable fate that Providence had allotted to him; that woman, love, and its pleasures would be forever passing before his eyes, but that he could never do more than witness the felicity of others. (IX.IV.27)

Hugo makes it clear to us that Quasimodo has no chance at love, just in case you were waiting for someone to see past his looks and fall for his winning personality or something like that. Sorry, folks: not gonna happen. Again, we're meant to see fate as something that condemns people to a certain unavoidable outcome. Frollo, for instance, seems condemned to never, ever find love.

Chance had unluckily favored the courageous hunchback. (X.IV.25)

Oh, the irony. It's strange to see a word like "chance" in a narrative that has been so much about fate. Or is chance one of fate's weapons? Is there such a thing as chance? Maybe it's possible that not everything is be determined by fate; but maybe not. Is a line like this supposed to make us question everything that has been said about fate so far? Or… wait for it… is Quasimodo a character who, unlike Frollo, fights against the idea of fate? After all, he does "end up" with Esmeralda at the end of the novel, despite the fact that it's his fate to never be loved. You might want to chew on that one for a while.

At that moment she had a vague feeling that Fate was an irresistible power. (XI.I.36)

"That moment" just so happens to be the moment when Frollo, who has dogged Esmeralda since the beginning of the story, finally gets her and leads her to her death at the Place de Grève. The sense of fate comes from Esmeralda's apparent inability to ever get away from Frollo. But fate is also about endings, right? Fate is supposed to lead to a certain point, or moment, or outcome. Esmeralda is literally moving closer to that fate waiting for her—the gallows—at the Place de Grève.

"All depends on your will. Whatever you want shall be done."

He interrupted himself violently. "No! That is not what I meant to say." (XI.I.49-50)

Freudian slip there, Frollo? Here's where we start to see the cracks in Frollo's assertions about fate. He has insisted for the entire novel that fate has delivered Esmeralda into his hands, but then he accidentally shows that there are also options that he is conveniently not considering: like, for instance, letting her go. So maybe what Frollo calls "fate" is actually just his own refusal to act any other way.

"You are all goodness, all gentleness, all compassion, all sweetness. Alas! To me alone you are cruel. Oh! What a terrible fate." (XI.I.55)

Sometimes Frollo acts like he didn't do anything to deserve the "fate" of Esmeralda hating his guts. It is a bit ironic, however, that the two people who truly love Esmeralda—Quasimodo and Frollo—are the two people she's never going to get with: Quasimodo for his outward ugliness, Frollo for his inner ugliness.

The priest, for his part, with outstretched neck and eyes staring from his head, contemplated the terrifying couple—the man and the young girl, the spider and the fly. (XI.II.17)

And here we return to our original metaphor for fate, introduced a few hundred pages earlier. This image is the key to our understanding of fate in the novel: Frollo can put all his devious machinations into place, but fate still needs to drive Esmeralda into his web. So the fact that all of his crazy plans work shows, in Frollo's mind, that fate is really behind it all. Are you convinced?