Study Guide

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Love

By Victor Hugo

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It was the first gratification of self-love that he had ever experienced. Until then he had encountered nothing but humiliation, contempt for his condition, and disgust for his person. (II.III.23)

Poor Quasimodo. He's so starved for love that he doesn't even mind being made a fool of. What we're meant to feel here is a little thing humanities grad students like to call pathos. Basically, we're being set up to root for Quasimodo because we feel so incredibly bad for him.

"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)

Esmeralda sure is a hopeless romantic (after all, she is sixteen). Her views on love are so cheesy and idealized that they may make you gag. The message we're supposed to get here is that Esmeralda is pretty naïve when it comes to love. Now, it's not that Esmeralda is wrong to hold the views of love that she does. It's a pretty noble and lofty sentiment, after all. But Esmeralda expects everyone else to be just like she is—and reality is a lot more complicated than that.

He perceived that there was something in the world besides the speculations of the Sorbonne and the verses of Homer; that human beings have need of affections; that life without love is only a dry wheel, creaking and grating as it revolves. (IV.II.9)

Who says that romantic love is the only kind of love there is? This novel has plenty of instances of familial love as well—like the Sack Woman's love for her daughter, for instance. For Claude Frollo, familial love is totally safe—remember, as a priest, sex and romance are off-limits for him. But this first experience with love makes him view love as something absolutely essential to life. But by taking on a priest's life, he's also left himself completely unprepared to deal with love with it strikes.

But what he loved most of all in the maternal building; what awakened his soul and made it spread its poor wings, otherwise so miserably folded up in its prison; what even gave him at times a feeling of happiness, were the bells. (IV.III.13)

So we know that bell-ringing is more for Quasimodo than just bell-ringing—he names and personifies the bells because they don't judge him and because he has no other friends. Well, okay, but we'd like to point out that something happens later in the novel, when Quasimodo, in the middle of bell-ringing, catches sight of Esmeralda dancing down below. Check out Book VII.III. What happens to his attitude towards his beloved bells then? Who has replaced them, and why?

We shall therefore say that Quasimodo loved the Archdeacon as never dog, never horse, never elephant loved his master. (IV.IV.4)

Quasimodo is grateful and subservient to Frollo beyond words. He may have never been shown kindness by anyone else in his whole life, so it makes sense that he would love Frollo. But what kind of love is this? What is its basis? Is it enduring love? If Quasimodo is so obedient toward Frollo, why does he end up killing him in the end? What changes?

"Do I love you, angel of my life?" exclaimed the Captain, half-sinking on his knee. "I love you and have never loved any but you."

The Captain had so often repeated this declaration in many a similar situation that he uttered it without forgetting a word or making a single blunder. (VII.VIII.30-31)

Well, there's a shameless lack of conscience for you. Who needs conscience when you're hot? The irony here that Esmeralda seems to have found that heavenly love she described earlier; but, of course, in reality, it's just Phœbus trying to get into her pants. Now, Esmeralda never really figures this out; so for her, this love actually exists. Pretty painful to watch, right? A few chapters later (in Book VIII.VI), of course, we see Phœbus pulling the same sort of thing with Fleur-de-Lis. So much for sincerity.

He stirred up from the bottom of his heart all its hatred and its malice, and he perceived, with the cold indifference of a physician examining a patient, that this hatred and this malice were only distorted love; that love, the source of every virtue in man, was transformed into horrid things in the heart of a priest, and that someone constituted as he was, in becoming of a priest made himself a demon. (IX.I.4)

All right, what exactly is going on here? Basically, Frollo is realizing that because he has denied himself sex and romantic love, when he comes into contact with those things they just make him a really bitter and hateful person. Earlier, he's thought about "the madness of eternal vows, of the vanity of chastity, science, religion, virtue, and of the uselessness of God" (IX.I.3). These are all excuses he has made for himself for why he shouldn't care about sex. He's realizing now that it's not the love or the sex that's evil; it's what he has made them into that's evil. Yikes.

Love is like a tree: it grows by itself; it strikes its roots deep into our whole being, and frequently continues to put forth green leaves over a heart in ruins. And there is this unaccountable circumstance attending it, that the blinder that passion, the more tenacious it is. Never is it stronger than when it is most unreasonable. (IX.IV.3)

Well, there is plenty of unreasonable love to go around in this novel. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find one happy, requited, sincere relationship in the whole thing. Is Hugo just the biggest pessimist in the world when it comes to love? Maybe. This line is in reference to Esmeralda's feelings for Phœbus, but really, we could apply it to all of the relationships in the novel.

"Mercy! Mercy!" repeated the wretched priest. "If you know what my love for you is! It is fire; it is molten lead; it is a thousand daggers in my heart!" (IX.VI.6)

We can't tell whether we should tune up the world's smallest violin or play this. What twisted kind of love is this? Oh, and let's not forget how ironic it is that love is "torturing" Frollo... while Esmeralda is undergoing literal torture. Now, the question is: is this really love? What do you think Hugo wants us to make of Frollo's declarations? Keep in mind, of course, that Frollo is trying to rape Esmeralda as he says all this. So his words don't really match up with his actions.

At that distance he could see her quiver beneath her white robe in the last convulsive agonies of death; then he looked down at the Archdeacon, stretched at the foot of the tower, looking hardly human at all, and, heaving a deep sigh, he cried, "There is all I have ever loved!" (XI.II.30)

The key word here is "all." Quasimodo does not dole out love easily, considering how little of it he has received in his life. But Quasimodo is also the one responsible for Frollo's death. It's as if Quasimodo had to kill Frollo in spite of his love for him. It's as if his love for Frollo and his love for Esmeralda have collided with one another; love is so complicated that it compels Quasimodo to destroy one of the two things he did love. Who ever said love was easy, or simple, or that it made sense? Not Victor Hugo.

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