Study Guide

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Time

By Victor Hugo


The man who wrote this word on the wall disappeared many centuries ago, the word in its turn has disappeared from the wall of the church, the church itself will perhaps soon disappear from the face of the earth. (Author's Preface)

And you thought this book was all about fate; turns out it's all about time, too. In this passage, the author is asking the question: what won't disappear? Is it inevitable that everything is transient? We're not supposed to be able to come up with an answer two paragraphs into the novel, but we are supposed to keep this issue in mind as we read.

This feudal sovereign is almost banished; it is pursued in our books of law, driven from square to square, and would occupy in our immense Paris merely a shabby corner of the Grève, one miserable, furtive, worried, shamefaced guillotine, which always seems as if fearful of being caught in the act, so speedily does it disappear after striking the fatal blow. (II.II.6)

This is likely one of those "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" moments, because the narrator is comparing the pillory and gallows of the 15th century with the guillotine of the 18th and 19th centuries. While it might seem like a leap in progress in terms of cruel and unusual punishment (the guillotine was supposed to provide a quick and painless death, though it's debatable whether it delivered on that promise), the narrator is pointing out here that at the end of the day, it's still an execution. Really, all that has changed is the appearance. As a side note, we should mention that Victor Hugo was famously against the death penalty.

Time and revolutions, whose ravages are, at any rate, marked by impartiality and grandeur, have been joined by a host of architects, licensed, certified, and sworn, destroying with the discernment of bad taste, replacing Gothic latticework with the chicories of Louis XV for the greater glory of the Parthenon. (III.I.14)

All right, so now we have at least one clear statement on the narrator's opinion of time: it is impartial and marked by grandeur. Fair enough. The cathedral did suffer a lot of damage during the French Revolution, but hey, c'est la vie, even for a cathedral. But what the narrator just can't stand is the army of architects who go in and "renovate," which the narrator interprets for us as "ruin." Notre-Dame underwent some changes during the reign of Louis XV (during the 18th century) in an attempt to "update" its style (source), and it's clear from this passage that the narrator finds such deliberate destruction unforgivable.

It is a transitional edifice. (III.I.17)

According to the narrator, Notre-Dame is in a constant state of flux. And he's not just talking about statues crumbling or wood rotting, either; he's talking about it changing, not deteriorating. As he says a little later, "Time is the architect, the people are the mason" (III.I.21). In other words, time manifests itself through Notre-Dame's weird, mixed-up architecture. So does this mean that the cathedral is a permanent structure or an impermanent one?

They are the deposits left by a people, the accumulations of the ages, the remains of the successive disappearances of human society—in short, of a species in formation. Every wave of time superimposes its alluvium, every generation deposits its stratum on the monument, every individual brings his stone. (III.I.20)

Time isn't necessarily something that goes around changing things on its own. It's actually people throughout time doing the changing. In fact, the narrator seems to be preparing the ground for an idea of time as something synonymous with human-wrought change. While he might see gaudy renovations as a generally bad thing, he also seems pretty keen on the idea of a building being a collective accumulation of peoples' histories. Get this: we can use this idea as a metaphor for the novel, too, because each character deposits a bit of his or her history to create one grand story. Mind = blown.

Under this heading, the Archdeacon's vague speech had a second sense: it signified that one art was to overturn another. That printing would kill architecture. (V.II.3)

We're going to call all of Book V.II a conceit, which basically means that we're supposed to take a statement like this with a grain of salt. Okay, so the narrator does not literally mean that the printing press means the death of all architecture. Instead, he's using this statement to make a point about the shift in attitudes toward art—and to implicitly suggest that the novel is the new cathedral (hint hint).

A building is an extraordinarily solid, durable, and resistant book! (V.II.20)

You might be tempted to write off this statement as another conceit (which it is), but bear with the narrator for a second, and think about the idea of reading. In the Middle Ages, people were all about weird symbolism in architecture (like, can someone please tell us what the heck is going on in this picture?). That's why you have a character like Frollo examining the statues around the entrance of the cathedral looking for hidden alchemical messages. Basically, words aren't the only way to convey meaning, and in a time like the Middle Ages, when books were hard to come by and most people couldn't read, anyway, you might just opt for a cathedral over a book.

The curious who would like to see this door will recognize it by this inscription, carved in white letters into the dark wall, I LOVE CORALIE, 1829. SIGNED UGÈNE. Signed is actually in the text. (VII.IV.10)

Hugo might have a small obsession with cathedral graffiti. But while the graffiti from the Author's Preface was directly relevant to the novel, this graffiti seems more like a bizarre aside. First of all, it takes us out of the Middle Ages, which is kind of weird, but then it also reminds us that the cathedral is still very much a real place where real people write real, clichéd graffiti. This cool passage situates the fictional narrative from the past in a place that we people of the future can theoretically go and see for ourselves, because fortunately, it's still standing.

"I was saying, sire, that perhaps you are right—that the hour of the people here has not yet come."

Louis fixed on him his piercing eye. "And when will that hour arrive?"

"You will hear it strike."

"By what clock, pray?"

Coppenole, with a grave but tranquil look, drew the King close to the window. "Listen, sire. Here is a castle keep, there a bell tower, canon, bourgeois, soldiers. When the bell tower buzzes, when the cannon roar, when the keep collapses with a mighty crash, when the bourgeois and the soldiers shout and slay one another, then the hour will have struck."

The face of Louis XI became gloomy and thoughtful. For a moment he was silent; then he patted the thick wall of the tower as though it were the flank of a favorite charger. "Oh no!" he said. "You will not fall so easily, my good Bastille!" (X.V.232-2237)

For readers in the 1830s, it would have been impossible to miss the ironic reference to the sturdiness of the Bastille, which was attacked and destroyed in 1789 at the outset of the French Revolution because it represented the monarchy's abusive state power (that's what it represents in this scene too—remember the prisoner in the box?).

So there's that important bit of history. But how is this conversation at all relevant to the story? Why does Hugo refer to events from 1789 in a story set in 1482? Well, by commenting on how things were in 1482, Hugo is also able to say things about the France of his own time and about what exactly those changes mean in a bigger historical context. Also, it's sometimes safer and more effective to say dangerous things about your own time if you cloak them in historical garb.

When those who found this skeleton attempted to disengage it from the one it embraced, it fell to dust. (XI.IV.8)

Now there's an image of impermanence. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator had been walking around looking at medieval graffiti in a cathedral that's been around since the 13th century. Whoever wrote the graffiti "disappeared many centuries ago," but the graffiti survived. And now the last line of the novel is given to the frail skeletal remains of two of its characters. That's a contrast, but it's not so hard to figure out what Hugo's up to. Let's review: people may not literally last, but they do last when memorialized in a work of art, like a novel.

There's a big debate in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame about whether a building or a printed book is the more permanent art form. We're not sure if Hugo totally resolves the debate, but we are pretty sure that we'll remember Quasimodo long after Frollo's graffiti has disappeared.

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