How ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ Made Us Love Gothic Architecture

Victor Hugo’s appreciation for the gothic architecture of Paris and Notre Dame shines in “Hunchback,” and his affinity for it rubs off on readers.

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Notre Dame

There’s quite a cast of characters in Victor Hugo‘s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo, Esmerelda, and Claude Frollo all come to mind at the mention of the classic tale. But no character is as looming and ever-present as the Notre Dame cathedral. To celebrate 191 years since the publication of The Hunchback, we’re looking at how Hugo’s novel changed the course of history for the famous Notre Dame cathedral.

For the Love of Architecture

Hugo is incredibly descriptive when talking about the Notre Dame cathedral in The Hunchback. His immersive descriptions make the cathedral seem like a sentient being rather than just a building.

He therefore turned to mankind only with regret. His cathedral was enough for him. It was peopled with marble figures of kings, saints and bishops who at least did not laugh in his face and looked at him with only tranquillity and benevolence. The other statues, those of monsters and demons, had no hatred for him – he resembled them too closely for that. It was rather the rest of mankind that they jeered at. The saints were his friends and blessed him; the monsters were his friends and kept watch over him. He would sometimes spend whole hours crouched before one of the statues in solitary conversation with it.

Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Notre Dame cathedral

Major themes in the book are expressed through the Gothic architecture of the Notre Dame cathedral. The French title of the novel, the original title, was Notre Dame de Paris.This title put emphasis on the cathedral itself rather than Quasimodo, the church’s bellringer. The cathedral is the main setting of Notre Dame de Paris, with all of the action taking place inside or around the impressive structure.

The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.

Victor Hugo
Quasimodo, Notre Dame cathedral

Decline of Gothic Architecture

The real Notre Dame cathedral inspired Hugo to write the novel. In the 1800s Renaissance architecture was taking over the previous art style, which was Gothic. People saw “Gothic” as vulgar and monstrous. In that transition process a lot of old Gothic structures in Paris were torn down or remodeled to reflect the Renaissance ideals that were taking hold in society.

Hugo was displeased with the idea of tearing down impressive Gothic buildings. He believed architecture reached its peak during the Gothic era and sought to preserve it. He saw Gothic structures as symbols of Paris’ past and didn’t want to completely erase them.

Worried that Notre Dame would become the next building to be torn down because of its architectural style, Hugo began speaking out. Hugo became one of the first historical preservationists, advocating for the restoration and preservation of the Notre Dame cathedral.


An Excellent Use of Metaphors

These events inspired him to write Notre Dame de Paris. In the novel Hugo used a number of metaphors to stress his argument of not just saving the cathedral, but also appreciating it. Quasimodo’s inner beauty, strength, and character is not appreciated by others, just like the real Notre Dame in the 1800s.

Following the publication of Notre Dame de Paris, the public began demanding the cathedral be preserved. In 1844 restoration of the Notre Dame cathedral began. Thankfully, the writings of a talented author not only brought attention to the problems the cathedral was facing, but changed the course of Notre Dame’s history entirely.