Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831. It has been made into several movies, including a popular black and white classic in 1939 and the well-received Disney film in 1996.
The book and movies explore several themes, but I want to concentrate on one in particular – that of the Individual versus Society. This is a literary theme where a character's main source of conflict is with society, or with social traditions.
A sub-theme of the Individual versus Society that I identify with (and that I may have made up) is about the pressure by society to not be different. About compelling the individual to blend in. Sure, society pays lip service to “being yourself” but when you look around, everyone is asking you to look a certain way or act a certain way. Being true to yourself, regardless of what society thinks, is a timeless theme.
It's ultimately about the breaking of societal norms, when those norms are immoral or unethical. For example, society judges us on how we look. And here, the ideals of society are in direct conflict with what is good and right. All you have to do is turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or watch a movie, and you can see how important outer beauty is. And yet, we all know deep, down, that that’s wrong.
In the early 1930's Alduous Huxley wrote Brave New World partly in response to a fear of losing one's identity as the world became more industrial and fast-paced. To highlight this them, one of the characters in the book compares being different with murder, coming to the conclusion that being different is much worse. He says,
“Murder kills only the individual...Unorthodoxy [being different] threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at society itself.”
Which, upon reflection, isn't exactly the kind of scene I'd write for a children's animated film.
We see what type of man Frollo is in a scene of the movie that takes place soon after, when he sings to Quasimodo, “You are deformed, and you are ugly.” Since Quasimodo never leaves the cathedral, he wants to attend the annual Festival of Fools, which Frollo calls a gathering of “Thieves and hustlers and the dregs of humankind, all mixed together in a shallow, drunken stupor.” He sings to Quasimodo, “They'll revile you as a monster.” And Quasimodo echoes, “I am a monster.”
I promise this was a kid’s movie.
Frollo represents everything that is evil about our society, only existing to promote what he feels is right and ignoring everyone else's welfare.
So the Festival of Fools begins. Being a public official, Judge Frollo must attend, and is accompanied by Phoebus.
But Quasimodo, disobeying Frollo’s desires also comes to the Festival.
As Esmerelda leads the guards on a merry chase, Phoebus seems entranced by her. He chases her into Notre Dame, but cannot arrest her in the church, so he sets her free.
Quasimodo helps her escape the cathedral though guards are stationed at every door. He has finally found someone who can look through his outer shell and see who he really is. He is completely smitten with her, and his Gargoyle friends (remember, this is a Disney movie) sing to him and convince him that she's in love with him.
There he sings a song titled Hellfire, and this is probably the creepiest scene I've seen in any Disney movie. He sings about how he, too, is in love with Esmerelda, “Tell me, why I see her dancing there, why her smoldering eyes still scorch my soul.”
Seriously? I’m wondering now if I should have watched this with my 7-year-old daughter.
Frollo goes to find out what Quasimodo knows, mentioning to Quasimodo that he will have a thousand guards attack the hiding place of the gypsies at dawn. This tricks Quasimodo and Phoebus (who has now turned against Frollo) to go to warn them. They unintentionally lead Frollo there followed by all the guardsmen, who capture Quasimodo, Phoebus, Esmerelda, and the gypsies.
Quasimodo is sent back to his tower in chains and watches as Esmerelda is about to be burned at the stake. But, at the last minute, our protagonist breaks free, climbs down from the tower, saves the girl, takes her up to Notre Dame, holds her above his head and in his booming voice, cries, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”
In the chaos, Phoebus is freed, the gypsies are rescued, and probably all of Paris is saved from Judge Frollo. He of course climbs the church and attempts to kill Esmerelda and Quasimodo, but in his haste to murder them, falls to his death.
And so we come to our, uh, happy ending.
Does our protagonist, the repellent, revolting Quasimodo, going against all tradition, get the girl? Of course not!