"The Hunchback of Notre Dame": A Character Analysis

Updated on March 25, 2017

“What makes a monster and what makes a man?”

Perhaps the most emotionally poignant and human question Disney has ever asked its audience. At its roots, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a story of hidden villains, unexpected heroes, and “Sanctuary!” Now 21-years old, the film’s themes are still extremely relevant and important. Most would say that the movie is about not judging a book by its cover, and that is true, but that is also an oversimplification of a story that deals with issues like freedom of expression, class struggle, religious suppression, racism, and religious/political corruption. But, how does Disney exemplify these issues so powerfully without stating them directly? How do they capture the essence of these struggles while making an entertaining story for all ages? The answer is simple: the characters. Quasimodo, the disfigured man who dreams of love and affection and friendship, and the Archdeacon Frollo, the staunch Catholic man plagued by cynicism and selfish desire.

Quasimodo and Frollo offer the perfect hero and villain, a pure antithesis. Quasimodo, on the outside, should be a monster, he should be horrifying and cynical because of how he was born. However, though he is a slave to Frollo and is physically deformed, Quasimodo remains a faithful idealist and altruist. Quasimodo doesn’t let his pains and disability hold him back from dreaming of a life of freedom and happiness, “Out there!” Frollo, on the other hand, is supposed to be a man of God (presumably a man of love) and a man of faith, when, in reality, he has no faith in the world, nor any individuals, nor himself. Though he should be the selfless man who acts as servant to God and the people, Frollo acts, instead, as a monster would. Frollo and Quasimodo both experience similar trials and tests, but choose drastically different paths and visions in the world.

First, consider Quasimodo and Frollo and their relationship. Frollo killed Quasimodo’s mother, a gypsy-woman, when Quasimodo was only a baby. Believing Quasimodo, and his deformity, to be God’s punishment for gypsy sin, Frollo almost drops Quasimodo down a well, but he is stopped and Frollo decides to spare his life. Taking Quasimodo under his wing and hiding him from the world, Frollo preaches to him a philosophy of cynicism and suppression: “The world is cruel. The world is wicked… You are deformed. You are ugly… I am your only friend.” Frollo obviously paints a hateful and bitter world to Quasimodo, but what makes Frollo’s character so dynamic and terrifying is that Frollo isn’t necessarily pure-evil or without sympathy. Rather, Frollo is a misguided soul who thinks he is doing the right thing by hiding Quasimodo from the world, his own form of protection. When he was younger, Frollo’s brother fell in love with a beautiful gypsy woman and joined the gypsy caravan with her, while Frollo pursued a life in the Catholic church. Eventually, Frollo’s brother died because of a sickness that spread throughout the gypsy caravan, because of this Frollo rejected the gypsy-woman, whom his brother had married, and her child, Quasimodo. The hatred and anger he holds for gypsies and non-Catholics has grown from this painful memory. Instead of coping with his brother’s death and offering help, Frollo only uses his pain to fuel his harmful worldview. Frollo is a sad, broken, and deluded man, which makes him Quasimodo’s perfect opposite.

Though Frollo’s goal is to hide Quasimodo from the “cruel” world and “protect” him, Quasimodo wants to live a life freely out in the world, “Every day they shout and scold and go about their lives. Heedless of the gift it is to be them. If I was in their skin, I’d treasure every instant: Out there.” Quasimodo is a pure soul who reminds us that we should cherish what we take for granted: love, affection, human relationships/connection. Though Frollo and Quasimodo both come from pasts of pain and suffering, Quasimodo chooses to see the world as an opportunity and a place to be explored, rather than a world to remain secluded from.

Though their views of the world are obviously completely opposite, the greatest juxtaposition in Frollo and Quasimodo comes through their mutual love for Esmeralda, a young but wise, kind, and charismatic gypsy woman. In the film, Quasimodo sings “Heaven’s Light,” a powerful love ballad that captures his love and admiration for Esmerelda, while Frollo sings “Hellfire,” a dark and ominous confession of Frollo’s selfish desire and lust for Esmerelda. In three quick verses in each song, we can easily identify the duality and symbolism behind the songs and how they express the dichotomous characters, Frollo and Quasimodo.

Lyrical Antithesis: "Heaven's Light" & "Hellfire"

Firstly, let’s consider the titles of the songs, “Heaven’s Light” and “Hellfire.” Heaven and Hell being an obvious contrast, one expressing purity and perfection, the other symbolizing eternal disconnect and damnation. Heaven’s light, as a visual symbol, perfectly embodies how Quasimodo’s feeling of love gives him strength, hope, liberation and deliverance. While Hellfire is the only symbol that could possibly exemplify Frollo’s selfishness, lustful desire, and contempt for Esmerelda. One is a turn to the light, the other is a turn to darkness.

“So many times out there, I’ve watched a happy pair of lovers walking in the night. They had a kind of glow around them. It almost looked like heaven's light.”

“Beata Maria, you know I am a righteous man. Of my virtue I am justly proud. Beata Maria, you know I'm so much purer than The common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd.”

In one verse, we can see Quasimodo’s altruism, he fully embraces his feelings and how he views love and romance, which he compares to heaven’s light. In the other verse, Frollo is prideful and in denial of his own emotions, he sees love and human connection as a weakness and vulgarity.

“I knew I'd never know that warm and loving glow. Though I might wish with all my might. No face as hideous as my face Was ever meant for heaven's light.”

“Then tell me, Maria, why I see her dancing there? Why her smold'ring eyes still scorch my soul. I feel her, I see her, the sun caught in her raven hair Is blazing in me out of all control.”

For Quasimodo, though he feels that his physical body was never meant to be loved, his soul longs for and dreams of a mutual affection and love. On the other hand, Frollo’s soul was never meant for material/worldly pleasures, but his physical impulses consume him, he cannot control himself.

“But suddenly an angel has smiled at me. And kissed my cheek without a trace of fright. I dare to dream that she might even care for me. And as I ring these bells tonight, My cold dark tower seems so bright. I swear it must be Heaven's light.”

“Protect me, Maria, Don’t let this siren cast her spell. Don’t let her fire sear my flesh and bone. Destroy Esmeralda, And let her taste the fires of hell. Or else let her be mine and mine alone. Hellfire, dark fire. Now gypsy, it's your turn. Choose me or your pyre. Be mine or you will burn.”

Quasimodo compares Esmerelda to an angel smiling on him. She even kissed him, the ultimate rejection of his physical deformity, which is his first touch of selflessness and kindness. He goes on to express how he wishes for her love and mutual care. Though Quasimodo knows he comes from a horrible past, a “cold dark tower,” he fully embraces and feels the grace of love, “heaven’s light.” As for Frollo, he only knows self-preservation and lets his racist/discriminatory contempt for women, specifically gypsy women, consume him with hatred and monstrous thoughts of damnation. If Frollo cannot have what he wants, he would rather see Esmerelda be eternally damned to hell. To Frollo, his lust is only a minor sin compared to the sin that Esmerelda commits by seducing him.

Quasimodo & Frollo's Ultimate Test

Towards the film’s close, it becomes clear that Esmerelda has fallen in love with a French solider/noble man, Phoebus. How Quasimodo and Frollo react and act upon this situation perfectly mirrors their thoughts in the aforementioned songs.

Frollo offers Esmerelda safe refuge and protection, but only if she submits herself to him. Esmerelda denies him, causing Frollo to use her social status/race to convince the church/city to burn Esmerelda at the stake, though she escapes with the help of Quasimodo. Consumed by rage and his selfish ambitions, Frollo attacks Quasimodo to get to Esmerelda. Ultimately, Frollo falls to his death into molten lead, a fitting plunge into hellfire.

Quasimodo wants to run away with Esmerelda, but she is in love with another man and he cannot follow her around forever. Though he is in denial at first, he never rejects Esmerelda or shows any contempt for her for her choices. Instead, he puts himself in danger and risks his life to save her from Frollo’s attempts to murder her. In the end, he gives Esmerelda and Phoebus his blessing, the ultimate sacrifice and act of love. He wants to see Esmerelda live a free and happy life, even if that means he can never have her.

Quasimodo and Frollo make The Hunchback of Notre Dame the greatest Disney film of all time, in my opinion. Quasimodo and Frollo are the most human/relatable characters with universal goals, and they compliment each other in how opposite they are. Through Frollo’s impure desires and Quasimodo’s genuine love for Esmerelda, the film offers the most important lessons in life about love, sacrifice, and discernment.

“Who is the monster and who is the man?” I think the answer is quite clear. High social status/religious hierarchy and its appearance doesn’t make someone an inherently respectful, good person. Physical disability, low social status, and belonging to a minority group/religion/belief doesn’t automatically make someone morally inferior. Villains can hide themselves in the most unexpected of places, and heroes can be found hidden in the darkest parts of the world. The Hunchback of Notre Dame can teach us all a thing or two about what it means to be good and just. It challenges us to look on our own lives and decide what makes us good, or what makes us evil. Whether you become a monster or a man, the choice is yours.

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Questions & Answers

  • What are the characteristics of Esmeralda and Phoebus in The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

    In short, Esmeralda embodies freedom, empathy, and non-conformity. She is a nomadic outsider who is considered an illegal and beneath even the common poor. Lowest of the low. And, yet, she shows only kindness and compassion to Quasimodo and others who are wronged. Perhaps it is because she knows this feeling of being an outsider all too well. She rebels against the law of the land in exchange for her own moral code. She puts people above the law, something Frollo does not do. She is everything that Quasimodo wants in life: freedom, adventure, kindness, independent etc. This is probably why he falls in love with her immediately. Esmeralda, although kind and compassionate, does have a bit of a distaste and short-temper when it comes to the upper-class nobility. She is extremely untrusting and hesitant to open herself up to other people because she has been cheated before. This is why she is extremely skeptical of Phoebus's intentions towards her when he begins to show a romantic interest. It isn't until she sees Phoebus's ability to change for the better that she too opens herself up to change her opinion of him and others. Living life on the run could definitely cause some trust issues and a need for distance. Although she is kind and empathetic, she certainly lacks a certain connection because she has had to close herself off in order to protect herself. However, in the end, despite witnessing first hand some of the horrors that others can commit, she still takes an idealistic and empathetic perspective and Quasimodo's and Phoebus's capacity for change inspires her to open her heart to them both. Although she falls in love with Phoebus romantically, she certainly falls in love with Quasimodo in a more platonic way. In the end, she increases her capacity for love by fulfilling her want for a trustworthy companion/partner.

    As for Phoebus, he actually starts out as the complete opposite. He is Captain of the law of the land. He represents lawfulness, safety, and self-absorbed ignorance. Phoebus starts out more like an anti-hero. He fights and works only to fulfill his personal wants and desires, he does not look past his own needs. He doesn't really have a strong moral code like Esmeralda. It isn't until he falls in love with Esmeralda that he begins to open himself up to the harsh truth that he is perpetuating a society built on unjust hierarchies and discrimination. Once Esmeralda is put into harm's way, he begins to understand personally the kind of loss that many of the lower-class citizens have been experiencing. Phoebus starts off extremely traditional, like Frollo, but what differentiates him from Frollo is his willingness to change and admit his wrongs. Frollo has a clear set of morals and goals and he openly discriminates. Phoebus, on the other hand, is simply guilty of being a man of his time. It was not until he experienced true love that he actually began to understand how weak he was for standing idly by while millions of people are in disarray. However, by the end of his character arc, he symbolizes something nobler: redemption, capacity for change within a close-minded culture, and justice. From only servicing himself to becoming a servant to others in need, Phoebus goes from using his title as Captain to benefit himself, to truly earning that title by becoming a defender of the people.

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