Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame



The engraving shows Quasimodo's head emerging from Cathedral architecture, resembling a gargoyle. “Quasimodo” by Gustave Brion, engraved by Perrichon and Yon in 1836.  From Notre-Dame de Paris. Oeuvres complètes illustrées. Paris: Éditions A. Michel, 1930.


One of the most well known nineteenth-century fictional representations of disability is that of Quasimodo, the deaf and disabled bell-ringer in Victor Hugo’s 1831 historical novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. The novel quickly became immensely popular, particularly in England, with multiple editions of at least three England translations being published within ten years of its first publication. The story was as equally popular in stage and operatic adaptations in England; in fact, Edward Fitzball had adapted and produced in London two different stage versions of it —Esmeralda; or, The Deformed of Notre Dame (1834) and Quasimodo; or, The Gipsey Girl of Notre Dame (1836) — before Hugo’s own theatrical adaptation, La Esmeralda (1836), hit theatres in Paris (Szwydky 471). The novel’s immense popularity demonstrates the nineteenth-century fascination with non-normative bodies that we typically associate with Victorian freak shows. 

However, the novel offers a complex portrayal of disability that neither simply reduces Quasimodo’s disability to a metaphor for social problems nor wholly recognizes the social source of his impediments. Ambivalently, at times the narrator solidly blames Quasimodo’s misery on his non-normative body, making such statements as “It is certain that the spirit pines in a misshapen form” (141), but at other times attributes the fault to the social environment of medieval France instead. In the two selections from Notre-Dame below, the social environment shapes the meaning of Quasimodo’s disability in two very different ways. The first selection, in which Quasimodo is elected “Pope of Fools” for making the ugliest face at the Epiphany celebrations,[1] shows how the social environment of the Carnival reads the grotesque in Quasimodo’s body. The second, however, in which Quasimodo has just rescued the heroine Esmeralda from execution by the King’s men, shows how the altered social environment interprets his body as sublime.

[1] Epiphany, a Christian feast day celebrated on January 6, marks the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus. 

Primary Source Text

Clopin Trouillefou, who had been a candidate [for Pope of Fools] — and God knows what intensity of ugliness his features could attain — confessed himself conquered. We shall do the same: we shall not attempt to give the reader any idea of that tetrahedron nose, of that horse-shoe mouth, of that little left eye, stubbled up with an eye-brow of carotty bristles, while the right was completely overwhelmed and buried by an enormous wen[1]; of those irregular teeth, jagged here and there like the battlements of a fortress; of that horny lip, over which one of those teeth protruded, like the tusk of an elephant; of that forked chin; and above all, of the expression, that mixture of spite, wonder, and melancholy, spread over these exquisite features. Imagine such an object, if you can. 

The acclamation was unanimous: the crowd rushed to the chapel. The lucky Pope of Fools was brought out in triumph, and it was not till then that surprise and admiration were at their height: what had been mistaken for a grimace was his natural visage; indeed, it might be said that his whole person was but one grimace. His prodigious head was covered with red bristles; between his shoulders rose an enormous hump, which was counterbalanced by a protuberance in front; his thighs and legs were so strangely put together, that they touched at no one point but the knees, and, seen in front, resembled two sickles jointed at the handles; his feet were immense, his hands monstrous; but, with all this deformity, there was a formidable air of strength, agility, and courage, constituting a singular exception to the eternal rule, which ordains that force, as well as beauty, shall result from harmony. He looked like a giant who had been broken in pieces and ill soldered together. 

When this sort of Cyclop appeared on the threshold of the chapel, motionless, squat, almost as broad as high, “the square of his base,” as a great man expresses it, the populace instantly recognized him by his coat, half red and half purple, sprinkled with silver bells, and, more especially, by the perfection of his ugliness, and cried out with one voice: “It is Quasimodo, the bell-ringer! it is Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre-Dame! Quasimodo, the one-eyed! Quasimodo the bandy-legged! Hurrah! hurrah!” The poor devil, it seems, had plenty of surnames to choose among. (43-44)


He held the damsel, palpitating all over, hanging from his horny hands like a white drapery; but he carried her with as much care as if he was fearful of bruising or disturbing her. He felt, you would have thought, that a thing so delicate, so exquisite, so precious, was not made for such hands as his. At times he looked as though he dared not touch her even with his breath. Then, all at once, he would clasp her closely in his arms, against his angular bosom, as his treasure, as his all, as the mother of that girl would herself have done. His cyclop eye bent down upon her, shed over her a flood of tenderness, of pity, of grief, and was suddenly raised flashing lightning. At this sight the women laughed and cried; the crowd stamped with enthusiasm, for at that moment Quasimodo was really beautiful. Yes, he was beautiful — he, that orphan, that foundling, that outcast; he felt himself august and strong; he looked in the face that society from which he was banished, and from which he had made so signal a conquest; that human justice from which he had snatched its victim; those judges, those executioners, all that force of the King’s, which he, the meanest of the mean, had foiled with the force of God! (311)


[1] A growth or tumour. 


Hugo, Victor. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. 1831. Trans. Frederic Shoberl. Standard Novels No. 32. London: Richard Bentley, 1833. Available online at



Further Reading

  • Duncan, Ian. “We Were Never Human: Monstrous Forms of Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Victorian Transformations. Ed. Bianca Trednnick. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2011. 7-27. Print.
  • Joshua, Essaka. “The Drifting Language Of Architectural Accessibility In Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame De Paris.” Disability Studies Quarterly 31.3 (2011): 14 May 2012. Web.
  • Szwydky, Lissette Lopez. “Victor Hugo's Notre‐Dame de Paris on the Nineteenth‐Century London Stage.” European Romantic Review 21.4 (2010): 469-487. Online.


Kylee-Anne Hingston



Hugo, Victor, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed July 22, 2024,