The novel's original French title, Notre-Dame de Paris (the formal title of the Cathedral) indicates that the Cathedral itself is the most significant aspect of the novel, both the main setting and the focus of the story's themes. With the notable exception of Phoebus and Esmeralda's meeting, almost every major event in the novel takes place within, atop, and around the outside of the cathedral, and also can be witnessed by a character standing within, atop, and around the outside of the cathedral. The Cathedral had fallen into disrepair at the time of writing, which Hugo wanted to point out. The book portrays the Gothic era as one of the extremes of architecture, passion, and religion. The theme of determinism (fate and destiny) is explored as well as revolution and social strife.
The severe distinction of the social classes is shown by the relationships of Quasimodo and Esmeralda with higher-caste people in the book. Readers can also see a variety of modern themes emanating from the work including nuanced views on gender dynamics. For example, Phoebus objectifies Esmeralda as a sexual object. And, while Esmeralda is frequently cited as a paragon of purity — this is certainly how Quasimodo sees her — she is nonetheless seen to create her own objectification of the archer captain, Phoebus, that is at odds with readers' informed view of the man.
In the novel, Hugo introduces one of several themes in the preface and the first story of book one, titled “The Grand Hall.” This theme is the exploration of cultural evolution and how mankind has been able to almost seamlessly transmit its ideas from one era to another through literature, architecture, and art. Hugo explores the cultural evolution not only between medieval and modern France but also the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, and he continues to elaborate on this theme throughout the entirety of the first book.
Another important theme in the novel is that a person cannot be judged by their looks or appearance. Since Frollo is a priest, a person would normally assume him to be a kind and righteous man. In truth, he is despicably cruel, manipulative, and evil. In contrast, most people judged Quasimodo to be the devil because of his disfigured outward appearance. Inside, however, he is filled with love and kindness. Esmeralda is also misjudged; because she is a gypsy, the people of Paris believe she is evil; but like Quasimodo, she is filled with love and kindness. Phoebus is good looking and handsome, but he is vain, selfish, villainous, and untrustworthy.
Before his story begins, Hugo establishes the theme of cultural evolution in the preface of the novel. Hugo writes that he had found the word "ANANKH" chiseled into the stone, but that it was later whitewashed over or scraped away. He continues, "These Greek capitals, black with age, and quite deeply graven in the stone, with I know not what signs peculiar to Gothic calligraphy imprinted upon their forms and upon their attitudes, as though with the purpose of revealing that it had been a hand of the Middle Ages which had inscribed them there, and especially the fatal and melancholy meaning contained in them, struck the author deeply." In chapter IV it is revealed that the word means "Fate."
In the preface, it is obvious that Hugo is already recognizing the cultural similarities between ancient and modern times. Hugo states that the ideas represented in the epochs and legends of ancient Greece are so similar to the ideas of the medieval world that it almost seems as if the ancient scribes were actually written by a medieval man himself. Hugo implies that the reason the two eras’ ideas are so similar is their transmission from one era to another through literature and the written word. In ancient Greece, epochs and legends were often inscribed on stone tablets. Since these ancient scribes have been passed down from generation to generation, they have become a very strong influence in the medieval world, a time in which ancient European works were celebrated and cherished. Also, the idea of printing literature on a medium for one to read was transmitted through both eras. However, instead of being inscribed on stone tablets, literature was printed of paper and parchment starting in the medieval era.
In this example, Hugo describes the importance of architecture and how it is an indication of a society’s values and ideals. The ornate and illustrious architecture that lies in ruins in Paris indicates the society’s dying passion for enrichment, art, and beauty. This passion is regenerated during the Renaissance, in which ancient art and lifestyles were revered. Again, Hugo gives credit to the more ancient societies for this inherent passion. Hugo states that although the original structures and buildings of ancient France may be decrepit or in ruins, it is their architectural beauty that inspired the gothic style of the medieval era. Hugo acknowledges this inspiration when he states: “The word Gothic, in the sense in which it is generally employed, is wholly unsuitable, but wholly consecrated. Hence we accept it and we adopt it, like all the rest of the world, to characterize the architecture of the second half of the Middle Ages, where the ogive is the principle which succeeds the architecture of the first period, of which the semi-circle is the father.”
The theme of Book One of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was cultural evolution. Hugo wants to show how people of the world can show their ideals and those from earlier eras through literature and technology. Hugo continues to strengthen the idea of cultural evolution between eras of time. Hugo argues that there is another way in which ideas are passed on between different cultures and eras, and it is through architecture or literature. Setting and architecture are very prominent in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hugo often goes into great detail describing the buildings and monuments of medieval Paris. Hugo relates these structures and their architectures back to their gothic roots, which date back to ancient times. In one lengthy description, Hugo states: “...very little remains of that first dwelling of the kings of France...What has time, what have men done with these marvels? What have they given us in return for all this Gallic history, for all this Gothic art? The heavy flattened arches of M. de Brosse, that awkward architect of the Saint-Gervais portal. So much for art; and, as for history, we have the gossiping reminiscences of the great pillar, still ringing with the tattle of the Patru.” Throughout the entirety of the Book One, Hugo puts great emphasis on the transmission of ideas from one era to another through literature, architecture, and art. Hugo had a passion for the Gothic architecture of medieval France and therefore he establishes an emotionally nostalgic tone toward Gothic art that is apparent throughout the novel.
In Book Two of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo spotlights many forms of loyalty. Quasimodo displays incredible devotion to the priest in Chapter Three; he “remain[s] on his knees, with head bent and hands clasped” in front of the priest. In Chapter Four, the police squad represents allegiance to the king when its members make their rounds in the streets of Paris. During these patrols, they surround Quasimodo and rescue the gypsy who had become his prey. The gypsy’s goat is also a symbol of loyalty. It continues to follow her steadfastly, even when Quasimodo has her captive and when the gypsy flees from the squad. The three knaves take Gringoire to their ‘king,’ a beggar to whom they remain unbelievably subservient. Esmeralda shows commitment to mankind when she marries Gringoire for the sole purpose of saving his life; even though she does not love him, she wants him to survive. Gringoire is so dedicated to poetry and philosophy that the very mention of “perhaps” or a mysterious notion is enough to give him a surge of courage or curiosity, respectively. He gives Frollo credit for all of his intelligence and success and stays loyal to him by making verbal tribute to him when he says, “It is to him that I to-day owe it that I am a veritable man of letters.” Loyalty is a crucial topic in Hugo’s second book within The Hunchback of Notre Dame and its existence and importance are represented in a variety of ways.
In Book Three, Chapter One has the theme of change from time. Book Three focuses on the Cathedral Church of Paris, and its appearance as time has worn it. The narrator describes the cathedral as a place once of beauty, now crumbling as time has passed. Stained-glass windows have been replaced with “cold, white panes” and it becomes clear that the narrator looks on the changes of the church sourly (Hugo). Improvements and modifications of the great cathedral have in a sense lessened its internal value. Staircases have been buried under the soil of the bustling city, and statues have been removed. The passing time brought immense change to the church, often in negative ways. Eras have scarred this church in ways that cannot be healed. The narrator describes, “Fashions have wrought more harm than revolutions,” (Hugo). The modifications and alterations to the cathedral are an unfortunate mark of change in time; the main theme of Book Three.
A theme that occurs in the Book Four of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is love. Love can exist in many forms. Love between mother and child, love between one and his hobby, and love between one and an object are relationships that are all present in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Claude Frollo is the priest of Notre Dame. Growing up, he was a very intelligent boy. He was fascinated by science and medicine. He had a love of learning; it was his passion. Later in the story he even turns to science and studying when he feels his life is going downhill. Learning was Frollo’s love until the day his parents died, and he adopted his baby brother, Jehan. Then he realized “that a little brother to love sufficed to fill an entire existence.” Frollo put all of his focus into caring for Jehan, and he loved him unconditionally. He also adopted another child later named Quasimodo, for the very reason that “if he were to die, his dear little Jehan might also be flung miserably on the plank for foundlings,--all this had gone to his heart simultaneously; a great pity had moved in him, and he had carried off the child.” Although the child was hideous and no one else wanted him, Frollo promised to care for him and love him always, as he did with his brother. Quasimodo’s ugliness only strengthened Frollo’s love for him. When the foundling grew up, he was given the position of bell ringer by his master, Frollo. “He loved them [the bells], fondled them, talked to them, understood them.” Quasimodo loved his bells; his most beloved bell was named Marie (the largest one). Quasimodo also loved his father, Frollo. After all, he “had taken him in, had adopted him, had nourished him, had reared him...had finally made him the bellringer.” Even when Frollo was unkind to Quasimodo, he still loved him very much. In Book 4, a love between father and son is seen. Frollo loved both of his adopted “babies” very much, and everyone had objects and hobbies that they loved dearly too; Frollo loved to learn, and Quasimodo loved his cathedral bells.
The theme of Chapters One and Two of Book Five is that the new technologies being created during this time period were going to destroy the knowledge of the past, and hide it forever from the generations to come. France, at the time Hugo was writing this piece, was in a time of rebuilding after the French Revolution. The people began to split into two different parts; one was for the republic of France and the other was against. Many changes were occurring during this time, and people were unsure of where to fall. "The book will kill the edifice," is a quote Hugo bases much of this chapter on. "The press will kill the church." The quote in full means that the printing press, a new invention, will overpower the church. In Hugo's writing he says, "In the first place, it was a priestly thought. It was the affright of the priest in the presence of a new agent, the printing press. It was the terror and dazzled amazement of the men of the sanctuary, in the presence of the luminous press of Gutenberg." The church was afraid that once the printing press was in full swing the people of France would no longer come and listen to the priests, but rely on the paper. The citizens of France begin to change their views and opinions about what they had been taught from previous decades. The printing press was a new advancement for the common people, and having a machine that could print hundreds of copies of the same written work was an amazement. The printing press was going to overthrow the church and its influence in the people's lives. "Printing will kill architecture," was another point that Hugo wrote about. Architecture was a way that people communicated. Hugo says, "...the first and most simple one, no doubt, there was in our opinion another, newer one, a corollary of the first, less easy to perceive and more easy to contest, a view as philosophical and belonging no longer to the priest alone but to the savant and the artist. It was a presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner;..." Because the priests were high, and mostly in charge of French society, they controlled much of the architecture as well. The priests were able to communicate through the buildings, because many of the edifices in France were religious monuments. The printing press was going to be a new way of communication which would erase the past from present thoughts. The printing press would take over society and the citizens would no longer admire what was once thought of as magnificent art, but disregard it as just another structure in the place where they lived. The major theme that is present in Book Five is that "The printing press destroys architecture". Hugo says that "Architecture is the great book of humanity." Before the printing press ideas were transmitted through architecture since books could not be easily mass-produced and large important buildings are well known. Hugo also states that "Architecture is the hand writing of the human race". So it would be easy to spread an idea by integrating it into the architecture of a building. The invention of the printing press changed that since now books could be easily mass-produced. It is easier to spread ideas through printed text rather than integrating it into the architecture of a building. It is by this principle that Hugo means that the printing press will destroy architecture, since architecture will no longer have the meaning as a major way of construing ideas. Architecture will then only be a form of art and not the sole method of transferring an idea from place to place.
One theme that is present throughout literature is that love can have very negative effects on those who are a part of it. This theme is very evident in Book Eleven because all of love's destructive characteristics come to fruition. The unrelenting love that Esmeralda has for Phoebus leads to her death when she can not help but call out to him while she is in hiding from the King’s soldiers, who capture her and take her to the gallows. The madness and moral decline of Frollo brought about by his obsessive love for Esmeralda leads to his death when Quasimodo throws him off of the bell tower when he laughs at the death of Esmeralda. "And with a hurried step - making her hurry too, for he never let go of her arm - he went straight up to the gibbet, and pointing to it, “Choose between us,” he said coolly. She tore herself from his grasp, fell at the foot of the gibbet, and clasped that dismal supporter; then she half turned her beautiful head, and looked at the priest over her shoulder. She had the air of a Madonna at the foot of the cross. The priest had remained quite still, his finger still raised to the gibbet, and his gesture unchanged, like a statue. At length the gypsy girl said to him, 'It is less horrible to me than you are'." This excerpt from the novel exemplifies the desperation that Frollo has in his love for Esmeralda and the passionate feelings for Phoebus that Esmeralda has, because she would rather die than be with someone else. Another example of love being detrimental to those involved is in the love that Quasimodo has for Esmeralda. This can be seen when he says, “Oh - all that I’ve ever loved!” after seeing the body of Frollo on the ground below the tower and the body of Esmeralda hanging in the distance. This quote helps to show that all of the love in his life has been taken from him. This deadly potential that love can have then catches up with him when his pure yet obsessive love for Esmeralda leads him to take his own life by joining her in her grave and starving himself to death rather than continuing to live without his love.
Architecture is a major concern of Hugo's in Notre-Dame de Paris, not just as embodied in the cathedral itself, but as representing throughout Paris and the rest of Europe an artistic genre which, Hugo argued, was about to disappear with the arrival of the printing press. Claude Frollo's portentous phrase, ‘Ceci tuera cela’ ("This will kill that", as he looks from a printed book to the cathedral building), sums up this thesis, which is expounded on in Book V, chapter 2. Hugo writes that ‘quiconque naissait poète se faisait architecte’ ("whoever was born a poet became an architect"), arguing that while the written word was heavily censored and difficult to reproduce, architecture was extremely prominent and enjoyed considerable freedom.
Il existe à cette époque, pour la pensée écrite en pierre, un privilège tout-à-fait comparable à notre liberté actuelle de la presse. C'est la liberté de l'architecture. There exists in this era, for thoughts written in stone, a privilege absolutely comparable to our current freedom of the press. It is the freedom of architecture.—Book V, Chapter 2
With the recent introduction of the printing press, it became possible to reproduce one's ideas much more easily on paper, and Hugo considered this period to represent the last flowering of architecture as a great artistic form. As with many of his books, Hugo was interested in a time which seemed to him to be on the cusp between two types of society.
The major theme of the third book is that over time the cathedral has been repaired, but the repairs and additions have made the cathedral worse: "And who put the cold, white panes in the place of those windows" and "...who substituted for the ancient Gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels' heads and clouds" are a few examples of this. This chapter also discusses how, after repairs to the cathedral after the French Revolution, there was not a significant style in what was added. It seems as if the new architecture is actually now uglier and worse than it was before the repairing.