Since it is January, night falls early and Gringoire is forced to wander the streets without any money, looking for a quiet place to spend the night. Philosophy is his only "friend," and he attempts to dress his wounds by explaining away his failure that afternoon. Gringoire keeps an eye out for a "pillow of stone," hoping that a good night's sleep will help him forget his miserable life in Paris. Just then he runs into the Pope of Fools procession, and Gringoire follows it toward the Place de Grève. Even though he finds it to be a sinister spot, he hopes to at least find something to eat. But by the time he gets there, there is nothing left. The narrator paints a bleak picture of the Place de Grève, the official site of public torture and execution.
Expecting to find only instruments of torture left in the square, Gringoire chances upon a bonfire surrounded by huge group of spectators transfixed by a "dazzling vision." They are watching La Esmerelda. She is a gypsy with an elegant figure and large black "eyes of flame." She balances two swords on her forehead, casting a spell on the crowd, which doesn't budge even after she finishes her performance. Gringoire finds her extraordinarily beautiful. Suddenly, the bonfire throws a red, "trembling light" on the wide circle of faces as an austere bald man who is about thirty-five years old yells out, "There is sorcery at the bottom of this!" La Esmerelda shudders and turns away to her pet goat, Djali, whom she has taught to tell time and do impressions of politicians. The crowd loves these new tricks and shuns the mysterious stranger.
Just then, the Pope of Fools procession enters the square, with Quasimodo leading the way. He is experiencing the first inklings of vanity in his life, enjoying the festivities but somehow aware that the crowd will hate him again in the morning. Nevertheless, his halo of delight comes crashing down when the mysterious stranger grabs Quasimodo and orders him on his knees. Quasimodo instantly obeys and through a series of signs and gestures agrees to follow the stranger out of the Place de Grève. Gringoire instantly recognizes the stranger through his ecclesiastical habit as Dom Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame. Even though he is amazed by this spectacle, Gringoire is more concerned with finding something to eat.
Finding no food, Gringoire "resigns his free will" and decides to follow La Esmerelda. The narrator explains this decision as the natural disposition of someone not having a place to spend the night. Just when she realizes that Gringoire is following her, La Esmerelda is suddenly attacked by Quasimodo. Gringoire thinks he sees the Archdeacon nearby but before he can rescue La Esmerelda, Quasimodo knocks him out. Out of nowhere, the King's archers appear, rescue her and capture Quasimodo. The captain, Phoebus de Chateaupers, introduces himself to La Esmerelda just before she disappears. When Gringoire comes to, he has no idea what happened and starts looking for a place to spend the night. He gets lost and finds himself in the Cour des Miracles, a den of criminals, beggars, and gypsies. A group of beggars tries to mug him but when they find out he has no money, they bring him before their "king," who turns out to be the same beggar who disrupted his play, Clopin Trouillefou. They are all about to execute him, when La Esmerelda appears and agrees to take Gringoire as her husband for four years. Stunned, Gringoire follows her back to her home only to find that she does not love him but only wanted to save his life. She hardly says a word, only once asking him what the word "Phoebus" means. Gringoire tells her that it is the Latin word for the sun. She disappears into her room and Gringoire spends the night on the floor.
The French title of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Notre Dame de Paris, indicating Hugo's interest in the history of Paris. For example, the narrator constantly laments the contemporary destruction of old Gothic edifices, blasting the "inundation of new buildings which is so rapidly swallowing up all the ancient structures of Paris." He thus attempts to give these old monuments a history, preserving their memory in the past as well as inspiring his readers to protect them in the present. Hugo also tries to relate his references to medieval structures of Paris to contemporary politics. He began writing the novel during the July 1830 Revolution, which deposed the Bourbon family and celebrated the cause of the original 1789 revolution. The Place de Grève, or "fatal spot," remained the site of public executions up until Hugo's day, but was most strongly remembered for housing the guillotine of the Reign of Terror (which began in 1793). When he mentions the "miserable, furtive, timid, shamefaced guillotine," Hugo gives his readers the historical context to understand what the Place de Grève represented in the Middle Ages, but also sends a warning about contemporary revolutionary fervor. He insists that the guillotine should not reappear in the new "enlightened" monarchy of Louis- Philippe.
This section provides more complete character development for Gringoire and La Esmerelda. Gringoire reveals himself to be a failure at everything except poetry. Indeed, he is completely unable to protect La Esmerelda. Orphaned at the age of six, he has wandered the streets of Paris since his youth, scavenging for food and friendship. La Esmerelda is also an orphan. Despite rumors about her "loose" ways, she is in fact chaste, and hopes to find her long lost parents. She carries a magic trinket around her neck, a fake emerald, which she hopes will help her search but so far has only resulted in her nickname. She has a very romantic view of love, instantly falling in love with Phoebus when he saves her and later declaring that love is "a man and a woman blending into an angel." The reader also catches a first glimpse of the evil Claude Frollo, the brother of Jehan, who appears in the first section. He introduces the theme of witchcraft and sorcery. His accusations against La Esmerelda reveal his own heart of darkness. The fact that Gringoire recognizes him at the bonfire is not only a subtle plot maneuver by Hugo, but also shows how small Paris is at this time: everyone knows each other. Also, the fact that most medieval Parisians are orphans represents Hugo's own concern for orphans in the present.
Unlike traditional French fiction at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hugo's work deals explicitly with the problem of poverty. Gringoire's descent into Paris's criminal underworld is thus not completely removed from regular society. In fact, the kangaroo court that Trouillefou and the other vagabonds preside over is alarmingly similar in conduct and absurdity to the "official" court proceedings that follow in later sections. In many ways, Gringoire's trial is more humane than the trials of Quasimodo and La Esmerelda: he is allowed to defend himself and is ultimately set free. The comic compassion of this scene paradoxically evokes the humanity of the beggars and their families. Hugo offers a moral to his contemporary readers about the need for social unity and the possibility of lifting Parisians up out of poverty.