The narrator pauses the story to give the reader a more thorough history and impression of the Notre Dame cathedral, a "sublime and majestic edifice." Begun by Charlemagne in 1163 and finished by Philip Augustus more than a century later, the cathedral has barely withstood the test of time. By a slow process, the "irresistible raising" of the ground level has swallowed up the cathedral's once-visible foundation. But the various traces of destruction that still scar its facade were mostly the work of men. During the French Revolution, a large part of the cathedral was ransacked by opponents of the monarchy. Consequently, by the time of the novel, the facade had lost an innumerable amount of statues and even a flight of eleven steps leading to the front entrance. As the narrator remarks: "Time is blind, man stupid." Nevertheless, he emphasizes the beautiful specimens of architecture that remain, especially the three porches with their pointed arches, leading up to a "vast symphony of stone."
The narrator then searches for an appropriate way to describe the cathedral's type of architecture, concluding that previous attempts to "improve" its facade have only resulted in further destruction and "amputation." These modern "fashions, more and more silly and grotesque" have represented the decline of architecture since the middle ages (except for the "deviation of the Renaissance). He continues by accusing attempted improvements as having done more mischief than angry revolutionary crowds, attacking the very "bones of art," hacking and murdering the building without logic or style, all in the name of good taste. As a result, Notre Dame does not belong to a particular architectural class. It is neither Roman nor Gothic. As each age has attempted to imprint its sense of beauty on the cathedral's facade, it lost a definite period of time to call its own, becoming a "transition edifice." Its ancient doorway and the round pillars are separated by six centuries, meaning that all the churches of France, both new and ancient, are blended and amalgamated in the mother-church of Notre Dame.
After presenting Notre Dame in its social, cultural, and historical context, the narrator situates the cathedral against the backdrop of medieval Paris. The narrator insists that Paris has lost much more in beauty than it has gained in size since the fifteenth century. By that time, the city had already overrun three concentric walls and covered a number of islands. He divides the city up into three parts, the Cité, the Ville, and the Université. The Cité, the densely populated island in the Seine has the most churches, including Notre Dame, the Ville has the most palaces, including the Louvre and City Hall, and the Université has all the colleges, including the Sorbonne. These seemingly distinct "towns" form the labyrinth of streets and monuments that made up Paris in 1482. However, the narrator is quick to point out that Gothic Paris had a short lifespan. Barely had it been completed before the Renaissance began to throw down its buildings to make room. This cyclical "renewal" every fifty years has left Paris without a signature style and the narrator asks the reader to compare Paris's future of plaster with its marble towers shooting up into the sky of Gothic Paris. He laments the dying of the Paris of his day, and sends the reader back in time to the singing, breathing, and trembling city of 1482.
Hugo's profound message about historical preservation and the importance of the past strongly resonates in these two chapters. At the time Hugo was writing, Notre Dame was falling apart and there was very little respect for its architecture. In effect, nothing had been done to repair the damage done to it during the French Revolution. The Romantic literary movement seized upon the cathedral as a symbol of France's glorious Christian past. For example, in Eugène Delacroix's famous depiction of the 1830 Revolution, Liberty Guiding the People, the two towers of Notre Dame can be seen in the background, evoking the mythic presence of Paris. Hugo greatly admired this painting, and strove to represent Notre Dame as the cultural and political center of Paris. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo thus describes the cathedral as a "chimera" that represents all of France. Its mix of architectural styles and the scars of ages past are not the works of an individual but "social works" and the "offspring of the nation." Notre Dame is a symbol of national unity: time was its architect and the entire country its mason. At the Romantics' urging, Parisians gradual came to see Notre Dame as a national monument and symbol of France. By 1845, a massive restoration program of Notre Dame began.
Hugo's presentation of Paris comes with one important caveat: every part of the city can be seen from the towers of Notre Dame, reaffirming its place as the center of Paris. The cathedral comes to represent Paris's "Gothic heart"—a reminder of its resplendent past. Even though most of this past has been swept away, Hugo compares the city to a living creature, "talking," "singing," "breathing," and "growing" everyday. He argues that Paris is on the verge of a major change that will forever erase its Gothic past. By evoking the Cité, the Ville, and the Université divisions of the fifteenth century, Hugo presents readers with a version of Paris that they still might recognize but which is rapidly disappearing. Indeed, within twenty years of the publication of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Napoleon III and Baron von Haussmann began a massive rebuilding program throughout most of the city, tearing down old quarters and widening streets into boulevards. Artists who had embraced Hugo's movement to safeguard the past were horrified, while Hugo himself moved into self-imposed exile.
Hugo goes out of his way to criticize the "pastry" improvements to Paris in the early nineteenth century. He blasts the Sainte-Genviève church as a "cake made of stone" and ridicules the architect for creating such an abominable church, especially in comparison to Notre Dame. This church later became the Pantheon, where Hugo is now buried. As ironic as this situation is, it also demonstrates Hugo's veneration to an extent that he never was willing to accept. Asking for a "quiet" burial upon his death in 1885, the French government declared a national holiday, and paraded his body throughout Paris before burying him.