The novel opens in medieval Paris on January 6, 1482, during the Festival of Fools. The timing of this yearly feast coincides with the marriage of Louis XI's son to a Flemish princess, and the city is full of revelers and Flemish dignitaries. There is a fireworks display in the Place de Grève, a May tree will be planted at the chapel of Braque, and a "mystery" (or play) will be performed at the Palace of Justice. Most of the Flemish dignitaries go to the Palace of Justice and join the huge mass of Parisians, forming a sea of people swarming around the stage, and impatiently awaiting the play and subsequent election of the Pope of Fools. The splendid gothic architecture of the Palace and its giant marble floor go unnoticed by the crowd, who begin threatening violence if the play does not begin soon. Pierre Gringoire, the playwright, does not know whether he should wait for the Cardinal, who is running late, or face the wrath of the angry mob. His immediate concern about pacifying the angry citizens, as well as his pride in his work, convinces him to order his actors to begin the play, entitled The Good Judgment of Madame the Virgin Mary.
Gringoire's actors appear onstage, representing the different classes of French society: Clergy, Nobility, Trade, and Labor. Unfortunately for the playwright, the crowd finds the piece completely uninteresting and soon turns its attention to a beggar, recognized as Clopin Trouillefou, who climbs his way up to the stage, crying out: "Charity, if you please!" Gringoire desperately tries to get the crowd to pay attention to the play, but even the actors have lost interest. Suddenly, the Cardinal enters the Palace. He is so powerful, graceful, and popular that no one minds his tardiness. His entourage of Flemish dignitaries, and not the play, soon becomes the center of attention. One of the Flemish guests, Jacques Coppenole impresses the crowd with his sense of humor and soon turns their attention toward the imminent election of the Pope of Fools. Gringoire pretends to be a disappointed spectator and yells for the play to continue but the crowd roars back "Down with the mystery!" Crushed at the failure of his work, Gringoire follows the crowd outside.
Coppenole convinces the Parisians to elect their "Pope" like they do in Flanders. Each candidate must stick his head through a hole; the one with the ugliest face wins. It is not long before Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Notre Dame is elected Pope of Fools. Unlike the other candidates, who have to viciously contort their faces to make the crowd hysterical with laughter, Quasimodo doesn't have to do anything. His giant head is covered with "red bristles," while, between his shoulder, an enormous hump rises up above his neck, only to be counterbalanced by a "protuberance" coming out of his chest. He has only one operable eye. The other is completely covered by an oversized wart, and his legs and hands are "strangely put together." Despite his monstrous appearance, Quasimodo still conveys an air of courage and strength. Calling him "Cyclops," the crowd hoists Quasimodo, who turns out to be deaf as well, onto a mock throne and begins parading him through the streets of Paris.
Meanwhile, Gringoire returns to his stage and desperately attempts to get the play going once more. He mistakes a few stragglers for interested spectators and is disappointed to find them gossiping about taxes and rents. Suddenly, someone calls through the window, exclaiming that La Esmerelda is dancing in the Place outside the Palace of Justice. Gringoire does not understand the magic ripple that passes through the crowd, as the remaining people run up to the windows to get a better view. Feeling like a general who has been soundly defeated, Gringoire gives up and abandons his play.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was Hugo's first novel after a series of successful plays. The structure of the novel closely follows that of a play, especially in this first section where Hugo uses the technique of exposition to "naturally" introduce the major themes and characters of the novel without emphasizing the presence of the author. For example, by placing Gringoire in an awkward situation, Hugo lets his character introduce himself to any of the spectators that will listen. Indeed, at one point, he simply declares, "My name is Pierre Gringoire." Moreover, the Festival of Fools allows Hugo to introduce Quasimodo and emphasize his physical appearance as seen from the point of view of the outside world. The reader can form a definite and nuanced impression of Quasimodo and allow for future character development as the reader begins to learn more about him from the inside out. Hugo also introduces Jehan Frollo, the brother of the novel's major antagonist, Dom Claude Frollo, as an anonymous member of the crowd, foreshadowing future plot developments. Even the beggar who disrupts the play will return to threaten Gringoire's life and attack Notre Dame in later sections.
Hugo not only observes strict rules of historical accuracy but also writes a historical novel. The narrator clearly states the exact date of the novel's opening scene and goes out of his way, whenever possible, to discuss the history of various monuments that he mentions. Striving for authenticity, Hugo interjects frequent Latin and Greek quotations, as well as out-of-date expressions, into his characters' speech so they sound medieval. Hugo's conception of historical context centers on architecture, and he immediately introduces the most predominant artistic theme of the novel, Gothic architecture, while discussing the Palace of Justice. The narrator unabashedly exclaims his reverence for Gothic architecture in this paragraph: "how one's eyes are dazzled!" Focusing on the pointed windows "glazed with panes of a thousand" colors, curving up toward finely carved ceilings studded in gold with fleurs de lis (the symbol of the Bourbon royal dynasty), the narrator sets the emotionally nostalgic tone toward Gothic art that figures throughout the novel.
As a pioneer of the Romantic movement, Hugo attempted to break with the Classicists and their obsessive focus on the antique cultures of Greece and Rome for literary inspiration. In writing this novel, Hugo thus branched out from the grand tradition of historical fiction by setting his action in medieval France, paradoxically confronting such contemporary (in 1830) hot topics as the Church and the monarchy. These issues had recently raised a political storm in the July 1830 Revolution, just as Hugo was writing the novel. As a result, the allegorical figures in Gringoire's play, such as Clergy, Nobility, and Labor, are references to the class differences that inspired the recent revolution. When the narrator notes that the crowd perfectly mimicked the allegorical figures on stage, he traces a current social and political problem back to its medieval roots. This was not the only way Hugo used France's recent past to comment on its present. By praising Gothic architecture throughout the novel, Hugo gradually convinced people all over Europe of the artistic merits of buildings and ruins that had been previously considered barbaric.