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Victor Hugo’s Spirit of Romanticism Once Heartened Frenchmen to Save Notre Dame Cathedral

Victor Hugo’s Spirit of Romanticism Once Heartened Frenchmen to Save Notre Dame Cathedral

5 Mins
April 16, 2019

The fearful blaze ravaging Notre Dame Cathedral came under initial control, this evening. Parisians then gathered on Cité Island in the Seine River, at the very center of Paris, to sing together as night fell.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced that despite terrible losses, the structure had been saved, and the 1,000-year-old triumph of French Gothic architecture would be rebuilt. Already, some had begun to recall that some 180 years ago, it was the great French Romanticist novelist and poet, Victor Hugo, whose genius saved the Cathedral.

In fact, it was the power of Romantic literature to lift men's hearts that is credited with re-igniting public love of the Cathedral and so rescuing it.

In fact, it was the power of Romantic literature to lift men’s hearts that is credited with re-igniting public love of the Cathedral and so rescuing it. It often has been noted that a chief theme of Notre-Dame de Paris (in the English version, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is the architecture of the Cathedral—its greatness, its beauty, its meaning. Hugo began the novel in 1829 (it was his first, he was known only as a poet and dramatist) to rouse the French public to the neglect and destruction that were overtaking the structure.


The architecture long had been neglected, or destroyed, and replaced by new buildings or parts of buildings in a newer style. As shocking as it seems, today, the medieval stained glass panels had been replaced with white glass to let in more light. Hugo wrote: "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…"

It was a matter of urgency that the book be finished and published. When Hugo started it, in 1829, he agreed to finish it that year. Delays intervened, other projects, and by summer 1830 the publisher was demanding the completed manuscript by February 1831. Hugo then worked nonstop, with a capacity for productivity and discipline almost unimaginable, and finished the book in six months.

Another tip-off to Hugo’s proximate motive for the novel is the original French title, Notre-Dame de Paris (our Lady of Paris). It must be added immediately, however, that for a Romanticist, one of history’s greatest, saving the Cathedral could be an occasion for writing the novel––an explanation of timing––but never the inner artistic force—in Hugo, a veritable geyser—driving creation of the unforgettably heroic characters and the epic value clashes that drive the plot.

The conflagration that roared through the Cathedral today, collapsing the entire roof and toppling its iconic spire, plunging debris into the interior—a repository of priceless works of art—is thus far viewed as an accident. It was fate or destiny that Hugo addressed in his preface to the novel, introducing the word “ANANKE” that is explored in the novel along with themes of revolution and social strife.

Ananke is from ancient Greek religion, denoting the compulsion of inevitability and necessity in the lives of men. Of course, it is a valid theme in context. The hunchback, Quasimodo, who is born and raised as almost a resident spirit of Notre Dame, is a soaring spirit capable of loyalty and love but trapped forever in a hideously deformed body. His spirit is as beautiful as the face of the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, for whom he conceives a fiery passion.

I will not attempt to summarize the plot, here, but as the story explodes into action, as it always did with Hugo, character and architecture become inseparable in the great scenes. Esmeralda has been arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Phoebus, her brutal seducer. She is sentenced to hang but, as she is led to the gallows, Quasimodo swings down by the bell rope of Notre-Dame and carries her off to the Cathedral, temporarily protecting her under the law of sanctuary from arrest.

One of the glories of Romanticism is to see the heroic spirit in what appears to be its opposite.

Hugo framed this first novel (he would not write another for decades, his other four novels all were written when he was over 60 years old) as an epic history of the French people––incarnated in the figure of the great cathedral. As a side note on the characteristics of Romantic literature, Hugo was perhaps the first novelist ever to have beggars as protagonists. One of the glories of Romanticism is to see the heroic spirit even in what appears to be its opposite.  

The enormous popularity of Notre Dame de Paris in France spurred creation of a virtual historical preservation movement. It stimulated Gothic revival architecture. In time, it led to sweeping renovations at Notre-Dame led by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Much of the Cathedral's present appearance, until today’s tragic fire, results from that renovation.

The bell-ringing, half-blind hunchback Quasimodo had become for Parisians “a courageous heart beneath a grotesque exterior.” He summoned them to look beneath the surface for the beauty beneath—but that, after all, is a watchword of the Romantic spirit.

As the Cathedral blazed earlier on Monday, the internet lit up with manifold comments and photographs from every distance and angle. One brief message said: “Notre Dame is burning and it feels like the end of the world.”

Fatefully, perhaps, Hugo, too, wrote of Notre Dame burning. I will quote at length:

All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time. Below that fire, below the gloomy balustrade with its trefoils showing darkly against its glare, two spouts with monster throats were vomiting forth unceasingly that burning rain, whose silvery stream stood out against the shadows of the lower façade.

As they approached the earth, these two jets of liquid lead spread out in sheaves, like water springing from the thousand holes of a watering-pot. Above the flame, the enormous towers, two sides of each of which were visible in sharp outline, the one wholly black, the other wholly red, seemed still more vast with all the immensity of the shadow which they cast even to the sky.

Their innumerable sculptures of demons and dragons assumed a lugubrious aspect. The restless light of the flame made them move to the eye. There were griffins which had the air of laughing, gargoyles which one fancied one heard yelping, salamanders which puffed at the fire, tarasques which sneezed in the smoke. And among the monsters thus roused from their sleep of stone by this flame, by this noise, there was one who walked about, and who was seen, from time to time, to pass across the glowing face of the pile, like a bat in front of a candle.

Without doubt, this strange beacon light would awaken far away, the woodcutter of the hills of Bicêtre, terrified to behold the gigantic shadow of the towers of Notre-Dame quivering over his heaths.

Walter Donway


Walter Donway

Walter Donway was a trustee of the Atlas Society from its founding until 2010. He launched the organization's first publication, "The IOS Journal," and contributed articles and poems to all later publications. He is the author of poetry collections, novels, and works of nonfiction, including his book, "Not Half Free: The Myth that America is Capitalist," with a foreword by David Kelley. He analyzed the philosophical meaning of the 2016 presidential election, and the import of Donald Trump's election, in his book "Donald Trump and His Enemies.: How the Media Put Trump in Office." He is an editor and regular contributor to an online magazine, "Savvy Street," that presents current events in the context of Objectivism. He lives in East Hampton, New York, with his wife, Robin Shepard.

Walter Donway
About the author:
Walter Donway

"Walter's latest book is How Philosophers Change Civilizations: The Age of Enlightenment."

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