The novel is set in the year 1482 in Paris. The citizens are reveling, as it is “The Festival of Fools.” In the midst of the celebration the struggling playwright, Pierre Gringoire, is trying to launch his play but the crowd loses interest, instead holding an impromptu contest for “The Ugliest Pope of Fools” where the award the ugliest person they can find. The “award” goes to Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral. The disheartened playwright leaves the contest where he comes upon the extremely beautiful gypsy performer Esmeralda as she is performing. Two critics, an old, bald priest and a crazy old hag, berate her as she presents. Suddenly, the procession of the Pope of Fools makes its way into Esmeralda’s performance area, with Quasimodo being paraded as their showpiece. The procession comes to a grinding halt however when the bald priest suddenly begins scolding the “Pope” and calling for the cessation of festivities. The old, bald priest turns out to be Archdeacon Claude Frollo, no less than Quasimodo’s patron. The two quickly leave the scene.
Frollo is a pious hypocrite. Outwardly, he obsessively upholds and enforces the rules of the Notre Dame Cathedral, inwardly however he burns with a fanatical lust for Esmeralda. His obsession for her finally overcomes him and he orders Quasimodo to abduct her. Gringoire, clearly smitten, decides to follow Esmeralda and unintentionally witnesses her supposed kidnapping by Quasimodo and another man. He tries to come to her rescue but Quasimodo knocks him unconscious. The planned abduction is thwarted however by Capt. Phoebus and his guards who manage to save Esmeralda and arrest Quasimodo.
When Gringoire regains his senses, he roams the streets and unintentionally finds himself in the Cour des Miracles. Here, the marginalized of Paris find shelter. Their leader, “King” Clopin Trouillefou, plans to execute Gringoire--except if one of the gypsy women would marry him. Esmeralda steps up, saving his life, agreeing to a 4-year marriage period.
Quasimodo is brought to trial. Regrettably, it turns out that both he and his judge are deaf, one from old age, the other from ringing bells. The trial ends up becoming tragically comic, but as a result, Quasimodo is sentenced to be scourged for an hour then locked up in stocks for public humiliation for two hours. He is mercilessly whipped then left for the crowds to deride and abuse. Worn from his ordeal, he calls out for water. Esmeralda approaches the public stocks and gives him a drink of water; she, despite the previous kidnapping attempt, hears his cries and is moved to pity. This act of grace and mercy captures Quasimodo’s heart.
Capt. Phoebus on the other hand makes the most of his rescue of Esmeralda to woo and bed her. He manages to successfully seduce Esmeralda, leaving him distracted enough for Frollo to sneak in and stab him, maddened by jealousy. The attempted murder of Phoebus is then blamed on Esmeralda. She is arrested and brought to trial for murder and witchcraft. She refutes the charges and as a result she is tortured. The abuses break her resolve and she admits to the crimes. Her admission results in her immediate sentencing to death by hanging. Frollo then takes this opportunity to force Esmeralda to come away with him, visiting her in jail and confessing his love to her. This act repulses Esmeralda and she spurns him, sealing her fate. The executioner leads her to the gallows to be hung, but she is snatched up by Quasimodo swinging from a bell rope from one of the towers of Notre Dame. Once she is with him he takes her to the cathedral to be protected, temporarily at least, under the law of sanctuary.
Frollo, unable to bear the sight of Esmeralda in Notre Dame conspires to take her away. He informs Pierre Gringoire that the Court of Parlement has moved to have Esmeralda’s right to sanctuary invalidated so that she can be taken away to be hung. Gringoire seeks the aid of Clopin, and together they rally the marginalized population of Paris to storm the cathedral and rescue Esmeralda. Quasimodo misinterprets the attack, thinking that they are there to kill Esmeralda so he fights them off. Conversely, he thinks that the King’s troops are there to rescue her and bring her to safety and mistakenly delivers her into Frollo’s clutches. This turns out to be another attempt, to win Esmeralda’s love; as before, she spurns him and Frollo hands her over to troops to be hung. As Esmeralda is put to death Frollo laughs, and this proves too much for Quasimodo. He pushes him from one of the towers of Notre Dame to his death.
Quasimodo, fully broken in spirit, turns his back on society completely and heads to Montfaucon, where the bodies of the convicted criminals are dumped. Here he locates Esmeralda's remains and he stays with them until he too, dies. Later, the sepulcher is opened, and the skeletons exhumed; here they find a pair of skeletons separated from the rest, one with a deformed spine clinging to a female skeleton and as they try to detach them, the remains disintegrate to dust.