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7 Fascinating Facts About Victor Hugo's 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'

Mary Kay McBrayer
Simon & Schuster (book cover), James Mato (background)

If you’re not a reader, the last time (and possibly the first time) you thought about the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris may have been when it went up in flames three years ago. Fortunately, 400 Parisian firefighters were able to extinguish the flames, and restoration has been in progress since then. Tourists are still not allowed inside, but the cathedral is easy to marvel at from its courtyard.

If you are a reader, though, you’re undoubtedly familiar with Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a work of historical fiction set in the Gothic Era of Paris. (Its opening line throws us back “three hundred and forty-eight years, six months, and nineteen days” to January 6, 1482; for some historical perspective, the story takes place only 51 years after Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.) You likely know of Quasimodo, of Esmeralda, maybe you know Dom Claude Frollo or even Captain Phoebus … but here are some facts about Hunchback you might not know.

1. Victor Hugo was super late submitting his manuscript to his publisher.

Victor Hugo
VICTOR HUGO / Fototeca Storica Nazionale./GettyImages

As Graham Robb writes in his biography of Hugo, the author’s initial due date for the manuscript was April 15, 1829—but he missed it. A year soon passed, during which a new deadline was negotiated with Hugo’s publisher (and not by Hugo himself, but by an intermediary): December 1, 1830. “This time,” Robb writes, “for every week the novel was late, Hugo would forfeit 1000 francs.”

But the author missed that deadline as well—the July Revolution had erupted, so Hugo told his publisher that he had lost important notes and got a two-month extension. Hugo then underwent “extreme self-discipline” to avoid the penalty, Robb writes, buying “a grey woollen body-stocking, a new bottle of ink, lock[ing] his clothes in the wardrobe and ‘enter[ing] his novel like a prison.’” According to author John Sturrock, Hugo actually started seriously writing on September 1 and finished January 14 or 15, “a book of almost 200,000 words written in four and a half months.”

2. In French, the title is Notre-Dame de Paris.

In her introduction to the 2002 edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, author Elizabeth McCracken writes that Hugo, who called his book Notre-Dame de Paris, hated the title that accompanied the English translation of his novel, which she notes “narrows the book down to one character and one building. In fact, this is a book full of heroes and monsters, saints and gargoyles, and saints-turned-gargoyles.” According to Britannica, Hugo—who believed that France’s architecture was a key part of its heritage—intended for the book to be “a story of the cathedral itself” as well as “a plea for the preservation of the city’s historic Gothic architecture (and thus its heritage).”

Why the title was changed for Frederic Shoberl’s popular 1833 English translation is unclear, but it may have been influenced by the publisher thinking that British audiences cared more about the story and characters than the building.

3. Disney’s animated adaptation tweaked much about Hugo’s novel—which has led to a number of misconceptions.

June 1996 From The Film Hunchback Of Notre Dam The Gysy Called Esmeralda Gives Quasimodo A Hand
Film still from Disney's 'The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.' / Getty Images/GettyImages

Hugo’s novel has inspired countless adaptations and re-imaginings, including an opera by Louise Bertin in 1836, for which Hugo himself wrote the libretto; a 1923 silent film starring Lon Chaney; and, of course, the infamous 1996 animated film by Disney, which ended up perpetuating many misconceptions about Notre-Dame.

In Hugo’s novel, Clopin Trouillefou isn’t the host of the Feast of Fools, as in the Disney cartoon, but the King of the Cour des Miracles—and that Cour des Miracles bore very little resemblance to Disney’s version (though one thing Disney did get right is that the name is tongue-in-cheek).

According to Atlas Obscura, during the reign of Louis XIV—over 100 years after the events of Hunchback—the number of people experiencing homelessness and poverty boomed, and begging became the main means of survival for many. A key strategy for eliciting sympathy (and money) from those more fortunate was to pretend to have a physical disability. When they returned to the slum at night, they no longer needed to put on the act and were “miraculously ‘cured’ of these ailments.”

While the historicity of the story is debated, this supposedly led the slum to be referred to as the Court of Miracles—and it so inspired Hugo’s writing that it was also featured in another of his most famous novels, Les Miserables.

The character of Clopin in the cartoon also doesn’t have much in common with the Clopin of Hugo’s novel, who is the leader of a street gang of tramps who must undertake dangerous initiation rituals. The gangs went unchecked because Paris had no police force in the late 1400s—just its Army.

And remember the scene where Phoebus and Quasimodo go through the catacombs to get to the Court of Miracles? It didn’t happen in the novel, and with good reason: The Catacombs of Paris were not created until the late 1700s, when the overcrowded Saints-Innocents cemetery caused a public health concern, and corpses were disinterred to Paris’s collapsing quarries. 

The end of the novel was also changed for the Disney adaptation to make it much less grim. In Hugo’s novel, Esmeralda is convicted of a murder (along with crimes of “sorcery, magic, and lasciviousness”) that she did not commit, and rather than riding off into the sunset with her handsome soldier, she’s executed by hanging. Grief-stricken, Quasimodo goes to Esmeralda’s grave, where he, too, dies. No one notices his death for years.

4. Quasimodo has a condition called kyphosis.

Kyphosis is when there’s a curvature in the spine; people who live with it in the real world can also experience breathing and digestive problems as well as limited physical functions. In Hugo’s novel, however, Quasimodo has superhuman strength as a result of his posture—though this doesn’t stop society from disowning him based on his appearance. He’s further detached from society by deafness that occurs as a result of years ringing Notre Dame’s bells.

5. Esmeralda’s fate illustrates Hugo’s opinion of the death penalty.

The hanging of innocent Esmeralda probably makes his stance clear, but it bears mentioning that Hugo did not support the death penalty—in fact, he actively spoke out against it, both before and after Hunchback.

In 1829, he published The Last Day of a Condemned Man, a novel written from the perspective of a man who was shortly set to die. (In an introduction to the 1832 edition, he explicitly spelled out that his goal was to abolish the death penalty.) After being elected to the legislature in 1848, Hugo gave a speech saying, “Look, examine, reflect … You hold capital punishment up as an example. Why? Because of what it teaches. And just what is it that you wish to teach by means of this example? That thou shalt not kill. And how do you teach that thou shalt not kill? By killing.”

Political stances like these (as well as things like calling Emperor Napoleon III a traitor for abolishing the democratic system of government in France) led to Hugo being exiled from France in the early 1850s. Napoleon III granted all exiles amnesty in 1859, but Hugo said, “Faithful to the undertaking I have given my conscience, I shall share the exile of freedom to the end. When freedom returns, so shall I.”

Hugo didn’t return to France until after the fall of the Second Empire in the early 1870s. At that point, he was elected to the National Assembly (then resigned after just a month) and, later, the Senate. Now, Hugo is memorialized in the Pantheon among France’s other national heroes. 

6. Hugo wrote at a standing desk.

One of Hugo’s more forward-thinking habits was writing on a standing desk; according to Smithsonian, the author “would find various pieces of furniture he liked and would work with carpenters to combine them into single pieces. The results were stylistically eclectic and, as evidenced by his stand-up writers desk, which seems to be made from a standard desk and a coffee table, seemed to be uniquely suited to accommodate his own habits and eccentricities.” You can see his standing desk at Hugo’s Place des Vosges apartment, now a museum.

7. The book saved Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame & The Seine, Paris, France
Notre Dame & The Seine, Paris, France / Tim Graham/GettyImages

The actual cathedral of Notre Dame, completed in 1345, had seen better days by the time Hugo wrote his novel: After a controversial renovation undertaken during Louis XIV’s reign and looting and destruction from the French Revolution, it was, according to The Guardian, “crumbling and half-ruined inside.” That all changed after Hunchback, which was so popular that it had thousands of reprintings. Its wild success (along with Napoleon’s self-coronation within its walls years earlier) helped spur the French government to fund a restoration of the church; the popularity of Hugo’s novel is a big reason why the cathedral still stands today.