How Victor Hugo Saved Notre Dame de Paris

Caricature of Victor Hugo
Caricature of Victor Hugo, elbows resting on Notre Dame, 1841

My series of posts about a new exposition featuring the Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris only covered a small fraction of the subjects tackled by the entire exhibit. There is much more to say and if you enjoyed the series, I hope you find time to visit the online exposition. There is one aspect of Notre Dame’s history, however, that I feel warrants its own dedicated post. That is the inextricable tie between Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the ancient church. Many artists have selected Notre Dame as their principal subject matter. But none have influenced our view and caretaking of the gothic monument more than Hugo.

A Novel Becomes a Cause

Quasimodo swings from a bell
The hunchback of Notre Dame swings from a bell, illustration for 1844 edition
First page of Victor Hugo's manuscript
First page of Victor Hugo’s manuscript for the Hunchback of Notre Dame, circa 1830.

In 1831, a young Victor Hugo enjoyed publication of his first smash hit, Notre-Dame de Paris, known by anglophones as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Several years prior, Hugo became aware of the cathedral’s alarming condition. After the French revolution, Notre Dame and other gothic monuments were neglected. Hugo worried that they were falling into ruin. He wanted to write a novel that would depict the church as a sacred work of art, condemn society’s indifference to its plight, and encourage its preservation.

His early efforts languished for a couple of years. Fortunately, many of his notes and the original manuscript for the novel were never lost. They provide clues about his process, which initially was somewhat scattered and interrupted by other projects. Then in July of 1850, the second French revolution (lasting only 3 days) erupted. Some say this revolt, which led to the overthrow of King Charles X, crystallized Hugo’s vision of his novel. Others point out that Hugo’s debts were mounting and his publisher was on the brink of suing him for breach of contract. Whatever the reason, Victor Hugo holed up in his Paris apartment for the next 4.5 months and doggedly cranked out the masterpiece that we know today.

An Epic Story

Drawing, Quasimodo looks down on Paris
Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, looks down on Paris. Illustration from an 1888 edition, by Luc-Olivier Merson.

Hugo’s writing symbolizes that which he loved most about Notre Dame, a mixture of the sublime and the grotesque. The book is aptly titled since the story takes place in and around the declining church. Many might characterize the medieval tragedy as a love story. The principal characters are Quasimodo, a hideous and disfigured hunchback; Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and Quasimodo’s evil guardian; Esmerelda, a beautiful roaming street dancer, with whom both Quasimodo and Frollo fall in love; and Phoebus, captain of the king’s archers and Esmerelda’s lover who is murdered by Frollo. However, the narrative goes well beyond that of an alluring melodrama.

Usually, the murmur that rises up from Paris by day is the city talking; in the night it is the city breathing; but here it is the city singing. Listen, then, to this chorus of bell-towers…”—Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Quasimodo saving Esmerelda from execution
Quasimodo saving Esmerelda from execution, 1833 oil painting by Melle Henry

Hugo delivers a large cast of characters, giving us a view of medieval Paris and its people. The roles include beggars living in the sewers of Paris, members of a band of thugs, magistrates, judges, executioners, members of the middle class as well as the nobility, and the King of France himself. There are many lengthy descriptive sections in the book. Two chapters of the novel are entirely devoted to describing the sacred Notre Dame in its heyday, namely the 15th century. Upon release, the book was an instant success that sparked a new movement to restore and enhance the ancient church, viewed by some as an eyesore in the heart of Paris.

A Cathedral Saved from Ruin

Quasimodo defends Notre Dame from attack
Quasimodo defends Notre Dame from attack, ink and watercolor, by François Chifflart

In the early part of the 19th century, many gothic buildings were demolished and replaced with more modern constructions. Hugo was disturbed by this and wrote a paper that recognized architecture as a valuable art form that man should endeavor to preserve. The paper, however, had little effect compared to the massive influence of the Hunchback story. After the novel’s publication, the governmental Commission on Historical Monuments held a competition for the restoration of Notre Dame. Two young architects, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, won the contest with a plan to restore the severely vandalized front facade. Viollet-le-Duc went on to redesign the church’s spire which I talk about in an earlier post.

“It is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.”—Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

A Lasting Presence

Victor Hugo chess piece
Bishop chess piece, Victor Hugo with Notre Dame for his miter

Hugo’s impact reaches well beyond the restoration of a beautiful church. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most reproduced works of art of all time. There are more than 12 films that recount the story. Its enticing characters re-appear in paintings, engravings, sculptures, cartoons, songs, comic strips, graphic novels, stage productions, periodicals, even podcasts. Indeed, there are so many beguiling works of art depicting scenes from the novel, it was hard to choose the images to use for this post.

When last year’s fire destroyed the roof of the beloved cathedral, the book rose once again to the top of bestsellers lists around the world. Amazon sold out of its most popular edition. The book’s “renewed” popularity, however, isn’t really something new. The cathedral and Victor Hugo’s acclaimed novel have long ago entered into our hearts and into our collective consciousness. References to them pop up in countless different contexts. Not only in France but throughout the world. I close with a humorous clip from the Sopranos that illustrates the intertwined nature of book and cathedral and how they continue to resurface nearly 200 years after Hugo put pen to paper.

Tony Soprano schools his cohort on Notre Dame.

Resources

Art credits: Public domain

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks Carol your postings are informative and enjoyable. Looking forward to the next one. ❤️

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.