Victor Hugo's 1831 gothic novel played a big role in the revivival of Notre Dame Cathedral

Victor Hugo's 1831 gothic novel played a big role in the revivival of Notre Dame Cathedral
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A massive fire engulfed the 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, sparing only the main structure, including the two bell towers. Firefighters are working to save the artwork inside one of France's most historically relevant monuments, while the cause of the fire is still unclear. The cathedral, which was constructed in the 12th century, with its famous spire standing since 1852, was undergoing renovation when the fire broke out. 

The tragedy takes us back to Victor Hugo's classic French novel 'Notre Dame de Paris,' translated into English as 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' by Frederic Shoberl.

The gothic novel that revolves around its protagonist Quasimodo has most of its parts set in and around the Notre Dame cathedral, where he is a bell ringer. Quasimodo, whose name loosely translates to "almost human," is a monstrously deformed child abandoned at birth and raised by the novel's antagonist, Notre Dame’s Archbishop Claude Frollo. The tragic novel's central conflict arises from Claude Frollo and Quasimodo falling in love with the same sixteen-year-old street dancer named Esmeralda. 

Set in the middle ages, the French gothic novel had a major role to play in the cathedral's revival from near-ruins and molding public perspective about the historic structure.

The novel which reflects on the bureaucracy in medieval France and the decay in human character employs Notre Dame not just as a setting, but as a central character in itself. The structure plays witness to the downfall of all its characters and sets the backdrop and fate of the narrative.

By the 1800s, when Hugo wrote his novel, Gothic architecture had given way to the Renaissance. Medieval constructions were considered monstrosities (brought out metaphorically by Hugo through his deformed monster Quasimodo) by Parisians and were being neglected and torn down.

Hugo, who saw the historic and architectural value of the Notre Dame cathedral, was alarmed by the neglect. He foresaw that Notre Dame would also be demolished like the rest of the city's gothic structures and wrote extensively against its "demolishers," becoming the first ever historic preservationist. 


Set in the 1400s -- at the height of Notre Dame's heyday -- Hugo wrote in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' : "[I]t is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer."

Notre Dame was near ruins in 1829. It was used as a gunpowder factory during the 1789 – 1799 French Revolution and its largest stones were earmarked for bridge foundations. Mobs had stolen the statues of kings that adorned the cathedral and beheaded them.

Hugo saw his beloved cathedral nearing its end and wrote 'Notre-Dame de Paris', which was published in January 1831 to critical acclaim.

Readers saw the beauty of the gothic structure through its heart-rendering plot and visitors from all over France flocked to the cathedral to take a look at the tower wall where Quasimodo etched his "fate", where he leaped to save Esmeralda from the gallows, where he pushed off his own father in grief and vehement anger. 


Readers saw exactly what Hugo wanted them to see through his passionate description of Notre Dame -- a beautiful architectural marvel neglected, on the verge of collapse. Following public outcry to save the cathedral, the government formed the Commission on Historical Monuments, and in 1841 assigned architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus to restore the monument to its former glory. And soon the relic was transformed into a national treasure.  

Among those hired for the cathedral's restoration was a French sculptor born deformed and nicknamed Le Bossu (French for the hunchback), much like Hugo's Quasimodo himself. Ironically enough, there is speculation that Quasimodo's character may have been partially based on Le Bossu.

After Lassus died in 1857, Viollet-le-Duc was left to finish the job. A strict Gothic revivalist, Viollet-le-Duc agreed with Hugo who believed that architecture was at its best in the gothic era. But, the young, ambitious architect did not want to just restore the cathedral to its former glory; he wanted to fulfill something the original architects of Notre Dame had only dreamt of achieving. He decided to install the famous wood and lead spire of the cathedral -- a move many historians and critics were against. But the spire was installed nevertheless.


"Viollet-le-Duc was a Gothic revivalist and interestingly, he had an impact on early modern architecture because of the emphasis that he placed on the structural beauty of buildings, which is a really significant aspect of the Gothic style," said Dr. Joseph Dreiss, Professor of Art History at the University of Mary Washington.

Over 25 years, Viollet-le-Duc also restored the western facade of the church, including the bells, the beheaded statues and the priests’ sacristy, which had been burned down in 1948. He also oversaw the resurfacing of the stonework, restitution of the statues and construction of a new sacristy. By the time the cathedral was rededicated on May 31, 1864 by the archbishop of Paris, its stained-glass windows had been reglazed, its famous gargoyles had been added, along with a new organ.

"I am glad that the primary structural stonework was not significantly damaged (in the fire). Stone is very fire resistant. I think it is a testimony to the intention of permanence with which these churches were built that even this incredible fire did not really damage the most important aspect of the building," added Dr Dreiss.


The Notre Dame not only oversaw Paris through the French Revolution but also survived the first and second world wars. At the end of the German occupation of France in 1944, the historic cathedral rang its bells to announce the liberation of Paris.

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 Victor Hugo Hunchback of Notre Dame helped revive cathedral