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Hunchback of Notre Dame

Victor Hugo

Book 5

Book 4

Book 6

Summary

Before describing Quasimodo's trial. the narrator gives the reader some historical context on the legal system of the middle ages. Courts were run by provosts who were appointed by the King. Each provost delegated authority to an auditor, the equivalent of a modern day prosecutor. Due to the complete lack of a police force and the conflicting jurisdictions of different courts, some even run by the Church, medieval court proceedings were quite chaotic. Quasimodo's is no exception. His attack on La Esmerelda and the King's archers has landed him in the court of the Grand Chatelet, under the jurisdiction of Master Florian Barbedienne. Florian is also deaf and the crowd breaks out into laughter as he attempts to question Quasimodo. Neither of them know what the other is saying. Florian assumes that Quasimodo is acting contemptuous when he sees the crowd laughing at him. He becomes so incensed that he orders Quasimodo to the pillory to be tortured. When someone finally tells him that Quasimodo is deaf, he pretends to hear that Quasimodo has done something else to mock him and Florian condemns him to an extra whipping.

In the Place de Grève, where Quasimodo is about to be tortured, there is a half-Gothic, half-Roman building called the Tour Roland, which had become a place of sanctuary for penitent lepers and widows seeking refuge from the outside world. The narrator now turns to a group of women heading to the Tour Roland to bring a cake to Sister Gudule, a recluse who has spent the last eighteen years of her life praying in a Tour Roland cell. Sister Gudule is famous for hating gypsies, especially La Esmerelda. One of the women recalls the story of Paquette la Chantefleurie from Rheims, who was also famous for hating Egyptian gypsies. She had always wanted a child and when she was sixteen she adopted an abandoned baby girl. The child made her happier than anything in the world. She even embroidered a pair of satin shoes fit for a princess for her baby to wear when she grew up. One day, a traveling group of gypsies comes to town to read fortunes. While Paquette is being told that her child will someday be a queen, some gypsies steal her child and replace it with hideously deformed one-eyed child. Horrified, and convinced that the Egyptians have eaten her baby, Paquette loses her mind and one day disappears. The archbishop of Rheims ends up bringing the deformed monster to Notre Dame to be adopted by anyone that will have it.

Upon reaching the Tour Roland, the woman from Rheims immediately recognizes Sister Gulude. Her long gray hair and wrinkled complexion barely show that she is alive, but the woman from Rheims is sure that she is looking at Paquette la Chantefleurie. Sister Gudule does not admit her true identity, but whines at the sound of children playing and urges the women to hide their children if La Esmerelda passes by. The women then see a tattered satin shoe lying beside her and cry out "Paquette la Chantefleurie!" The woman jumps to her feet and starts to curse all "gypsy child-stealers."

Not far off from this scene, Quasimodo is being attached to the pillory, a medieval torture device that stretches the body out on a rack. Just the day before, he had been hailed the Pope of Fools on this same spot and now undergoes a violent contraction of surprise as the wheel begins to turn and the appointed torturer begins to whip him. He first tries to break free but then grows despondent, silently accepting his punishment without flinching. Two attendants wash the blood off his back and apply ointment to his wounds. Then the crowd starts to hurl stones at him, most of them simply angered by his ugliness. A shower of abuse pours on him but Quasimodo starts to smile when he sees Archdeacon Claude Frollo approaching. Frollo suddenly turns around and leaves Quasimodo to his suffering. He begins to beg for water but only gets jeers from the crowd. Just then, La Esmerelda appears and pours water onto his parched lips. Touched by her kindness and tearing in his one good eye, Quasimodo almost forgets to drink. The torturer then releases him and the mob disperses.

Commentary

Although Hugo praises Gothic art and architecture, he maintains no illusions about medieval justice and torture. The judges and prosecutors are usually the same people, who have no idea what they are doing. Courts are usually more than willing to send defendants to the pillory just to please the crowd. The fact that Florian is also deaf not only proves the impossibility of Quasimodo receiving a fair trial but also demonstrates that it is really only Quasimodo's ugliness—and not his deafness—which keeps him from leading a normal life. No one comes to his aid at the trial, even his stepbrother, Jehan. This scene also lends a tragic legitimacy to Quasimodo's constant public humiliation. Up until now, only individual people had condemned him for his appearance, now French society as a whole "legally" tortures him for being different. Hugo suggests that medieval justice was both blind and deaf.

The torture scene is horrific not only for the interaction between one torturer and his victim, but requires for the passive complicity of the entire crowd watching the spectacle. Just when the blood is wiped from Quasimodo's back (demonstrating his profound humanity and victimization) the crowd begins to torture him again with rocks. Even Frollo turns his back on him, refusing to admit to himself that he should be the one tortured in Quasimodo's place. The reader cannot help but feel sympathy for Quasimodo and forgive him for attacking La Esmerelda the night before (even if he was just following Frollo's orders). Indeed, La Esmerelda herself forgives him when she brings him water. Hugo thus chastises the hypocrisy of the crowd, especially Frollo, whose religious beliefs should encourage sympathy and compassionate forgiveness. We are left admiring the brave compassion of the only non-Christian character, the Egyptian gypsy, who forgives her own attacker. This scene also encourages the reader's complete sympathy for Quasimodo throughout the rest of the novel.

Hugo's plot twists unsurprising, and are typical of the inconceivable coincidences that fill nineteenth-century novels. First, the reader must accept the improbability of the women going to see Sister Gulude, then telling the story of Paquette la Chantefleurie, and then discovering that the two women are the same. It is also pretty clear that the deformed baby, who is left by the gypsies and then brought to Notre Dame, is Quasimodo. Moreover, Sister Gulude's outright vehemence toward La Esmerelda and the fact that she and Quasimodo are the same age, hints that she is most likely Paquette's kidnapped daughter. All of Paris's orphans are looking for their parents to bring them out of misery and beggary, while their parents are actually tragically close by. This plot contrivance also establishes an unofficial kinship between Quasimodo and La Esmerelda, one having been replaced by the other.

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