A parentless gypsy of fifteen or sixteen, Esmeralda captures the interest of four very different admirers. There is the philosopher Pierre Gringoire, the playboy Captain Phoebus, the repressed archdeacon Claude Frollo, and the eponymous hunchback, Quasimodo. These admirers, though individually very different, fall either side of a seemingly quite rigid framework: they are either portrayed as weak and cowardly or as sexually threatening and potentially violent. This sets up a problematic dichotomy between ‘unmanliness’ and sexual aggression within the novel.
Gringoire, the philosopher and playwright with whom the novel begins, falls into the “coward” category. Falling into the hands of the Truands at the Court of Miracles, he is saved by Esmeralda, who agrees to marry him out of pity, thereby giving him a place within the Court. Enamoured with his beautiful young wife, he makes tentative advances but is swiftly rejected. He does not then force the issue. The subsequent characterisation of Gringoire as a coward–he denies any connection to the Court of Miracles in order to save his own skin, while grovelling at the feet of the king– links this inability to overpower and take pleasure from Esmeralda to weakness, rather than to any sense of respect for the woman that saved his life. This suggestion is compounded by the fact he eventually runs off with the goat, symbolically embracing his cuckolding to Esmeralda’s virtue, and leaving the young woman to her fate.
Captain Phoebus, who through coercion and empty words nearly manages to overpower Esmeralda’s desire to remain chaste, is, in spite of Esmeralda’s devotion to him, a genuine danger. His interactions with his betrothed, as well as those he shares with Esmeralda, show that he is the kind of man to take what he wants over any consideration for his partner. In meeting resistance, he simply turns up his cajoling, and were it not for Frollo’s timely stabbing then whatever was about to transpire between Phoebus and Esmeralda would not have been truly consensual. Esmeralda’s naive love for Phoebus is, in the end, her undoing, and he, uncaring to the last, remains unaware of his final role (if not his instigating role) in her death.
Claude Frollo is a terrifying character. A priest for whom women are a sin, Frollo hates and despises what he simultaneously desires. Consumed and obsessed by Esmerelda, he first attempts kidnap in order to send her away from Paris. When that fails, he stalks her, conspiring to secrete himself away in a cupboard to watch her seduction by Phoebus. When a glimpse of her bared shoulder inflames his passions and jealousies, he stabs Phoebus, then passionately kisses the fainted Esmerelda before jumping out of the window. This, of course, leaves Esmerelda to take the blame for the “murder.” Caught between the conflicting desires to either satisfy or to deny his sinful, burning lust, Frollo spends the rest of the novel wavering between rape and murder.
Quasimodo is perhaps the most interesting case in that he starts a coward, unwilling to stand up to his master, Frollo, and ends by taking possession of Esmerelda. For some, “The Marriage of Quasimodo,” the book’s final chapter, is a bitter-sweet end to the tragedy with Quasimodo and Esmeralda, the two outcasts, united in death. But this is an incredibly rose-tinted reading.
Quasimodo begins to fall in love with Esmerelda when she shows him pity and brings him water at the pillory. From then, he becomes her protector, eventually saving her from the hangman by taking her into Notre-Dame Cathedral and claiming sanctuary. Quasimodo takes care of Esmerelda, bringing her his food and bedding, and respecting her personal boundaries. He also agrees, against his own desires, to act as a messenger between her and her beloved Phoebus. It is the first time we see kindness or compassion from any of the male characters in the novel, and it does not last.
In contrast to her otherwise good nature, Esmerelda remains frightened by Quasimodo’s appearance. This leads him to present her with a whistle, which, despite his near-deafness, he can still hear. He does this with the instruction that she is to blow it when she no longer feels afraid of him, saying he will keep away from her until that time. He complicates that gesture by sleeping outside her cell door. This turns out to be fortunate when Claude Frollo appears in her chamber one night, and, in her desperation, Esmerelda blows the whistle. Quasimodo flies into a rage and attacks the attacker, only to realise it is his beloved master Frollo. He then kowtows to the archdeacon, asking only to be killed first so that he doesn’t have to witness the intended rape.
In not standing up to Frollo, Quasimodo reveals his cowardice. This cowardice coincides with all of his otherwise kind and selfless gestures: his refusal to enter Esmerelda’s cell, his retreat from her in spite of his obvious desire for her, and his selfless agreement to fetch Phoebus for her, even at the expense of his own happiness. Cowardice, and the suggestion of “unmanliness” (symbolised by Quasimodo giving up his cutlass to the priest), again find their parallel in a lack of sexual aggression.
This changes when Quasimodo witnesses Esmerelda’s death. Enraged, he finally stands up to Frollo and abandons the Cathedral. It is this emboldened Quasimodo that finds his way to Esmerelda’s tomb, lays down beside her, embraces her, and dies. This final embrace is an act of possession and control over an unconsenting body.
Whatever else is going on in this otherwise vastly enjoyable novel, the connection between cowardice, weakness, “unmanliness”, and a disinclination towards sexual violence, has to be criticised, as do the uncomfortable undertones of that final chapter.