Study Guide

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Suffering

By Victor Hugo

Suffering

We must nevertheless do him justice: malice was probably not innate in him. From his earliest interactions with men he had felt, and afterward he had seen himself, despised, rejected, cast off. Human speech had never been anything to him but a jeer or a curse. As he grew up he found nothing but hatred around him. He had adopted it. He had acquired the general malevolence. He had picked up the weapon with which he had been wounded. (IV.III.10)

You know that heart of gold you're always hearing about? That doesn't come until later. It's a lot easier for people to be nice when there is nothing really at stake. When Quasimodo is sympathetic toward Esmeralda, it takes on a special resonance because he doesn't usually roll that way.

It was a strange reversal for the poor fellow to be pilloried on the same spot where the preceding day he had been hailed and proclaimed Pope and Prince of Fools, escorted by the Duke of Egypt, the King of Thunes, and the Emperor of Galilee. (VI.IV.7)

If there's one thing this novel shows us, it's that crowds are fickle. The Festival of Fools is just about the only time that Quasimodo is accepted by society. The other 364 days of the year, it's back to business as usual (and "business as usual" here means hating on the poor bell-ringer). Since we first meet Quasimodo as he's being paraded around as the Pope of Fools, we're actually deceived into thinking that his life isn't all that bad. Then we see him fall. Hard.

This apparition, always so fatal to her, which had thrown her from misery to misery, roused her from her stupor. (VIII.IV.30)

Frollo has been dogging Esmeralda's every step. The other characters might be able to attribute their suffering to a lot of different things, but it seems pretty clear that Frollo is behind a lot of Esmeralda's misery. It makes Esmeralda's storyline all the more tragic, because we can imagine that if Frollo were only out of the picture, or a little less crazy, then maybe things would end well for her (unless she goes on loving Phœbus, that is). That's one thing that good tragedy does: it taunts you with the "if onlys."

To her this little shoe was, as we have already observed, the universe. Her thoughts were wrapped up in it and never to be parted from it except by death. (VIII.V.3)

Poor Paquette la Chantefleurie. Her little anecdote is a tragedy in and of itself. There is something kind of Shakespearean about the "long-lost daughter" plotline—think The Winter's Tale—and it's actually a pretty big hint that we're going to meet this long-lost daughter (against all odds, of course) by the end of the novel. But Hugo toys with our emotions by making what should be a joyous reunion into an even more tragic ending.

And then, so touching was that protection afforded by a being so deformed to a being so unfortunate as the girl condemned to die and saved by Quasimodo! It was the two extreme miseries of nature and society meeting and helping each other. (VIII.VI.106)

So Quasimodo is miserable because nature has made him deformed, and Esmeralda is miserable because society has condemned her to die. Why does the narrator find it so "touching" that two miserable beings should help each other? Maybe it's because we like seeing victims rise up against their oppressors. Here, the oppressor is portrayed as misery itself, and misery seems pretty random when it chooses its victims. Who can't relate to that?

It seemed to him then that the church too moved, breathed, lived; that each massive column was transformed into an enormous leg, stamping the ground with its broad stone foot; and that the gigantic cathedral was a sort of prodigious elephant, puffing and walking, with pillars for legs, the two towers for trunks, and the immense sheet of black cloth for trappings. (IX.I.29)

You know that moment when you feel so guilty that is seems as if even the buildings are watching and judging you? Okay, that's a pretty extreme level of guilt, but Frollo did just condemn an innocent person to death. The chapter "A High Fever" (Book IX.I) is essentially a nightmare in which Frollo has to confront his own evil actions.

She should have borne the suffering of having her fingernails torn out rather than make such an admission. After all, if only she could see Phœbus one more time, for a single minute. A word, a look, would be enough to undeceive him and bring him back to her. Of this she was absolutely certain. (IX.IV.4)

Can you say "denial"? Esmeralda might have suffered on a lot of literal levels—like her imprisonment, torture, and death sentence, just to name a few—but let's not discount the fact that she's also going through some serious heartache. In fact, her yearning for Phœbus remains with her up until the end of her life. Come to think of it, isn't everyone in this novel just looking for a little bit of love? Why can't anyone get it?

"I love you. Nothing can be more true. No fire can be fiercer than that which consumes my heart. Ah! Maiden, night and day—yes, night and day—does this deserve no pity? It is a love, torture, night and day, I tell you." (XI.I.55)

All right, Claude, we get it. You're unhappy. Actually, let's talk about Frollo's liberal use of "torture" as a metaphor for his feelings, because he uses it a lot (remember his whole spiel to Esmeralda in Book VIII.IV.62?). Now, we're not saying that unrequited passion isn't its own torture. But the fact is, Frollo sees his emotional situation as comparable to Esmeralda's literal situation, in which she's about to die. Comparable? Not really. But at the very least, it does make us acknowledge that love hurts a whole lot.

"No, no, you must be dreaming. It cannot be. To lose her for fifteen years, and then to find her for a single minute! And they would take her from me again, now that she is grown up and handsome, and talks to me and loves me! They would now come to devour her before my face—mine, who am her mother! Oh, no! Such things are not possible. God Almighty would not permit such doings." (XI.I.107)

Oh, yes, God Almighty would. Part of the rules of tragedy, as outlined by this guy Aristotle, is that in order for a character to be tragic, he or she needs to fall from a high place. Paquette might not be that "high up" necessarily (Aristotle meant that tragic characters needed to be great people, like monarchs), but the rule is actually still at work here: if her entire existence is wrapped up in finding her daughter, then by finding her, she has been elevated as far up as she can go.

At the 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 ever loved!" (XI.II.30)

What a contrast. Here is Esmeralda in a white robe symbolizing purity and goodness and all that stuff, and here is evil Frollo, his humanity gone, looking like a squashed bug. Yet these were the only two people to ever show Quasimodo any kindness, and each was the undoing of the other. It's a balance, we guess... but a really sad one.

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