The Importance of Teaching Values in School Part IV of V
By Jill Jenkins
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
One skill that students need to develop is how to select quality friends, associates and life partners. One of the most devastating events in an adolescent’s life is to select friends who are involved in unscrupulous behavior. These no account rascals can lead an otherwise good child from a productive life to a life of crime and violence. Flashy, gregarious youth who seem fascinating can lead a child astray like a moth to a light.
In Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pacquette is a beautiful, sixteen year old girl who allows wealthy, aristocrats to use her and throw her away like a used tissue. Each time she is discarded, she continues with a man of lower social class and position, until finally she becomes involved with “The Prince of Thieves.” Her behavior leaves her with an illegitimate child who she adores. When her little daughter is kidnapped, she is destroyed and becomes the tattered recluse living in a Lady Rolande’s sanctuary praying and weeping.
Esmeralda, her beautiful daughter who is raised by her biological father returns to Paris, but Pacquette doesn’t recognize her. Esmeralda, now sixteen, shares her mother’s good looks, but devoutly clings to her chastity believing that if she does, she will meet her mother again. Esmeralda is attracted to a handsome, police captain, Phoebus. Phoebus is engaged to his cousin, but is an alcoholic, womanizer who tries to seduce Esmeralda. Esmeralda is unjustly accused and convicted of Phoebus’ murder even though he is not dead. Quasimodo, the hunchback who lives in the cathedral, rescues Esmeralda and gives her sanctuary in Notre Dame.
It is a simple act of kindness that almost saves Esmeralda. When Quasimodo, who has been bullied and ridiculed by the everyone for his disfigurement, is put on the pillory as punishment for kidnapping Esmeralda, Esmeralda is the only one who will bring him a sip of water. Because of her kindness, Quasimodo falls in love with her and, consequently, rescues her from the gallows. If students are taught to understand that it is the simple act of kindness that often means so much to others, they can change the climate of a school. Asking students to perform a simple act of kindness and write about it will help students understand that they can make a difference in another person’s life.
Because Quasimodo loves the beautiful Esmeralda, he brings her two vases with roses. The first one is in a crystal vase that is cracked, because it cannot hold water, the roses wilt. The second one is a plain, earthenware vase that is not cracked, so the roses remain beautiful. The vases represent the two men. The crystal vase represents Phoebus who is handsome, but flawed. He can never truly love Esmeralda. The earthenware vase represents Quasimodo who is physically deformed, but not morally bankrupt, so his love can protect Esmeralda. In the end, Esmeralda’s inability to understand this leads to her death. This could lead to another assignment by having students identify people in the world who might best be represented by the crystal vase and explain why with specific examples and one that might be represented by the earthenware vase supporting their choice with specific examples.
This piece of literature could be used to discuss and write about the importance of the quality of a man's character over physical appearance. (Warning: translations of this book vary considerably. If you are teaching in a conservative society, I suggest you look at the Scholastic version of the book.) It could be used to discuss the importance of using that as a measurement of the quality of friends as well as life partners. One essay that you might consider is for students to list what qualities are the most important for an individual for a life partner or a best friend and prioritizing these qualities and justifying these choices with rationale.
Other discussion questions that could be used in literary circles or for writing assignments include:
- Jehan and Quasimodo are both raised by Claude Frollo as his sons. Which is the better son? Why? Why does Claude Frollo fail to recognize this?
- Claude Frollo, Pacquette and Esmeralda all fail to recognize that what they have been looking for is right before their eyes. What makes them so blind to the truth? Describe an event in real life where people are blind to the truth.
- Quasimodo's name is Latin means almost formed. Compare Quasimodo, Claude Frollo, Phoebus and Jehan Frollo to determine who is the most complete person.
- At the end of the book, everyone is trying to save Esmeralda. Explain how a lack of communication ends in everyone's death.
- During the election of the King of Fools, people with various degrees of deformities place their face or other parts of their anatomy out the window and the crowd laughs. When Quasimodo displays his deformities, they elect him the King of Fools. Victor Hugo might be implying that we all in some degree Quasimodo; therefore, the reason people taunt Quasimodo is because they do not want to admit their own shortcomings. When the crown sees the beautiful Esmeralda, they likewise taunt and scuff at her appearance. What role does being "different" play in bullying?
- Pierre Gringoire's play is suppose to be a morality play, but it is an ironic mix of mythological characters and religious ones. In what way is the novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a morality play?
- When Claude Frollo rescues the infant Quasimodo from a group of women who were about to burn the deformed child, it is obvious that finding homes for orphans who are handicapped is difficult. How difficult is it today to find homes for children with disabilities? Why is it difficult?
- Victor Hugo's description of the architecture of the buildings in Paris represents the complicated value system of the era. Look at our school. What does the architecture of today say about our society?
- Since Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Phoebus and Claude Frollo are all judged by the people of Paris by their appearance, it is likely that Victor Hugo is making statement about the problems created when people judge others by what they appear to be, instead of the "quality of their character." What problems occur when people judge others by their appearance, rather than their characters? How do people at this school judge others by their appearance? What stereotypes exist in this school? Are the assumptions made about these people based on their appearance true or false? What problems occur when students judge other students based on their appearance?
- If Quasimodo is not the most distorted character, who does the title, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, really represent?