Study Guide

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Justice

By Victor Hugo

Justice

Now we have noted that judges in general arrange matters so that the days when they have to perform their judicial functions are their days of ill humor, so that they may be sure to have somebody on whom they can conveniently vent in the name of the King, of the law, and of justice. (VI.I.4)

The name of justice is misused a lot in this novel—not by the narrator, but by the people who are supposed to uphold it. Justice a convenient shield to hide behind; after all, who is against justice? The problem is that the justice administered here isn't really justice.

It is most certain that it is quite enough for a judge to appear to listen, and this condition, the only essential one for strict justice, the venerable auditor fulfilled even more exactly since no noise could distract him. (VI.I.8)

Hugo takes incompetence to a whole new level of irony here by creating an auditor who literally cannot perform his one job function: he's deaf. Yeah, it's funny, but we sure wouldn't want to be in this courtroom. This comedic scene is symbolic of a bigger problem: justice in this novel doesn't actually "hear." Translation: there is no justice in this novel, at least in terms of a competent judicial system.

There was scarcely a spectator among the crowd who had either had or imagined that he had ground to complain of the malicious hunchback of Notre-Dame. His appearance in the pillory had excited universal joy; and the severe punishment that he had undergone, and the pitiful condition in which it had left him, so far from softening the populace, had only rendered their hatred more malevolent by arming it with the sting of mirth. (VI.IV.21)

Ah, public justice. What an oxymoron. His sentence aside, Quasimodo is also judged by the public, the members of which see themselves as justifiably cast in the role of punishers. Has Quasimodo actually done anything to them? Of course not. The point is that by calling Quasimodo a criminal, the public finds it a lot easier to think that Quasimodo has somehow wronged them. There is something sadistic about the whole thing.

In his estimation there was nothing like a criminal trial for dispelling melancholy; the judges were in general so amazingly stupid. (VIII.I.7)

We can't say we've ever attended a trial to lift up our spirits, unless you count all those Law and Order marathons. The point here is that the justice system is being likened to a comedy. It's entertainment. People get a total kick out of seeing other people punished, and the justice system makes all of that possible. Um, let's just say that this is not a very positive review of the justice system.

A counselor observed that the judges must be fatigued, and that they would be detained a long time if they waited for the conclusion of the torture; to which the head judge replied that a magistrate ought to have learned to sacrifice personal convenience to his duty. (VIII.I.71)

Remember what we were saying earlier about the misuse of the word justice? Now it's the word "duty" that's being misused. It's quite noble of the judge to delay his dinner so that Esmeralda can be properly tortured, right? The key word here is irony. At least his intentions are good?

Tongs, pincers, broad plowshares lay scattered, heating up in the fire of the furnace. Its bloodred light illuminated nothing but an assemblage of horrible objects. This hell was merely called the Chamber of the Question. (VIII.II.1)

The Chamber of the Question is an understated name if there ever was one. It suggests something benign and reasonable, but as we can see, it is anything but. It's also ominous, because it's the Chamber of the Question, as opposed to "Questions."In other words, they really just care about one thing: Will you confess?

Justice in those days cared little about propriety and accuracy in a criminal process; provided that the accused was hung, it was perfectly satisfied. (VIII.VI.2)

Well, that pretty much says it all, doesn't it? But you might ask why Hugo is so intent on showing us this ugly side of justice. Could he be saying that society tends to see a guilty verdict as justice? There's also that suspiciously conspicuous phrase "in those days." Do you think the narrator means it, or is he being sarcastic and saying that justice hasn't changed much since the Middle Ages?

He stared down the human justice from which he had snatched its victim, those judges, those executioners, all that force of the King's, which he, the meanest of the mean, had foiled with the force of God! (XIII.VI.105)

Aha. So there's a justice that exists outside of the legal justice system, which, as we've seen, isn't actually so much about justice. We've got the imagery of elevation here (Quasimodo is looking down on the judges, executioners, and King's forces), as well as the assertion that Quasimodo's action is the "force of God." So this passage seems to be saying something about how this force of God is something higher that overrides the legal justice. We should also consider that Esmeralda is brought into the cathedral at this point, which is a symbol of the divine. Quasimodo seems to be operating from a higher level of justice than the justice system itself is.

All around him was stone: before his eyes, gaping monsters; under him, at the bottom of the gulf, the pavement; over his head, Quasimodo weeping. (XI.II.24)

There is something pretty Biblical about this scene. Frollo seems to be falling into hell: the "abyss" below him is mentioned multiple times, there are demons all around, and Quasimodo provides a nice divine judge—maybe even a Christ-figure—standing above and weeping as Frollo pays for all of his sins. So justice does come to Frollo, we guess—but it comes to him from outside of the legal system.

In this vast mortuary, in which so many corpses and so many crimes have rotted together, many of the great of the world, and many innocent people, have successively been laid to rest, from Enguerraud du Marigni, who made a present of Montfaucon to the King, and who was a good man, to the Admiral de Coligni, who was the last to be brought there, and who was also a good man. (XI.IV.6)

What's with the King and hanging good men? Isn't the whole point that bad people are supposed to be the ones who get punished? Well, the point is that the justice system exists based on the whims of the King. Montfaucon symbolizes this arbitrary monarchical power; good and bad—and guilt and innocence—actually have nothing to do with it.

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