Grace and Hellfire: Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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I have an interesting relationship with many Disney animated films, and varying degrees of love for all the animated classics, but one absolute fascinates me each time I watch it, resonates on much deeper levels than I can explain, and is my favorite because its messages are so daring and powerful: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

I have blogged about it twice before, and even done a video review highlighting some of the things I enjoy most about it, yet each time I see it, as I grow, mature, learn, and evolve in my spiritual walk, new things emerge to fascinate me, which serves as a tribute to the intelligence and depth that went into producing this film and its many layers of symbolism, artistry, and beauty. It is a far more realistic and compelling look at beauty than Beauty & the Beast, encompassed in a single line uttered by Chopin: “Who is the monster, and who is the man?” Gaston has nothing on Frollo, just as the Beast has nothing on Quasimodo.

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As a student of history, I am often saddened at how barbaric humanity can be, in times when “life” was meaningless, disrespected, and something to be thrown away. From the gladiator games in Ancient Rome to stoning someone to death in Judea to crowd amassing to watch the French queen lose her head, humans often see death as a spectator sport; they cheer for it, participate in it, or are complicit in it through doing nothing. Most would not murder as individuals, but in a mob, any such personal convictions fade away. It is a strange, sinister thing that comes over a mob, that renders it violent and sadistic or unwilling to stop barbarity in its tracks… and Disney dared to bring this to our attention in a movie marketed for kids (along with genocide, lust, persecution, and a symbolic criticism of the medieval Catholic Church). I speak, of course, of Quasimodo’s moment of triumph, of acceptance from the crowd quickly turning ugly as it begins to mock, ridicule, and abuse him, as they tie him down and pelt him with rotten fruit… all while his “master,” Frollo, stands by in the belief that the boy must be taught a lesson in disobedience.

Only Esmeralda dares to challenge Frollo and free Quasimodo, a spirited heroine with no respect for unjust authority, who defies Frollo openly and challenges his concept of justice; she believes his justice is not justice at all, if it will not step in to defend the weak. Esmeralda later sings a song to God, praying for Him to have mercy on those who need it most, in vivid contrast with the selfish prayers of the other Parisians at prayer in Notre Dame (“I pray for wealth… I pray for fame… I pray for glories to shine upon my name…”). Her defiance puts her in Frollo’s crosshairs and his obsession with controlling her turns into lust. The film does a glorious shift between Quasimodo’s heartfelt adoration for her, in all its beautiful innocence, to the Archdeacon in Notre Dame singing a purification ritual, and then straight into “Hellfire,” Disney’s most controversial song, in which Frollo angrily refuses to take responsibility for his sins, while singing about his lust and his intention to force Esmeralda to accept him as a lover or perish in the fire.

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Throughout the story, Notre Dame symbolizes God and the real Church, with its emphasis on the cathedral as the “heart” of the city. It is a place of peace, security, and safety that Frollo defiles whenever he enters it. It is on the steps of Notre Dame that Frollo first commits murder, in Notre Dame that he abuses and imprisons Quasimodo, in Notre Dame where he assaults Esmeralda, against Notre Dame that he launches an attack, and in Notre Dame where he tries to kill them. This symbolizes the evils committed inside and by those within the Church throughout the ages, from molestation cases to pastors abusing their authority. Yet, it is never Notre Dame who is to blame, and always Frollo, a reminder that sins committed in the name of God are not perpetrated by Him, nor should they reflect either on Him or His true church, which is the body of Christ (genuine believers).

Here is where the symbolism becomes complicated; Frollo is acting as a stand-in for the “Official” Church of the period, which was primarily concerned with power, control, and persecution of those who did not submit to its authority or share its beliefs. The true Church is Notre Dame herself, a personification of what the Church (or Christianity) ought to be, while Frollo is a human embodiment of what the Church often is. He sees “evil everywhere except within,” deferring and explaining it away each time another more godly soul brings his vile deeds to his attention (“She ran; I pursued”). Frollo is deluded, and believes he is the hero, which is what makes him both so real and so frightening. Truly evil people never believe they are a villain; they are deceived to believe their horrific actions are justified for a greater good. If you are doing what is “right,” then you need have no conscience, and you need not repent, because in your own mind, you do not sin, and you are holy and justified. Deceived people are much further from repentance than anyone else, because they see nothing wrong with their behavior and feel no need for a savior.

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Some of the greatest sins in history were thought of as justifiable or even godly acts by those who committed them, because they believed themselves in service to a higher cause; they were so deceived as to see no sin in their cruel actions. Joan of Arc burned because she defied the authority of the Church. Jesus was put to death because He dared to defy the authority of the Temple. And, that is what abuses within the Church throughout history really come down to… authority, power, and control. If an institution or individual desires to control you, or to have power or authority over you, and it goes to great lengths to maintain that authority, so much so that it ceases to be humane, then it has become ungodly, because the focus is not on forgiveness and mercy, but on maintaining control.

Frollo is different from the typical Disney villain because he does not crave power; he already has it, and intends to use it to control Paris, and to eradicate anyone who does not agree with him. He cannot control the gypsies, so they must be destroyed. His entire relationship with Quasimodo is one of total domination and control… he tells Quasimodo how to think and behave, and any acts of rebellion are met with cruelty and punishment. Esmeralda’s defiance brings her to his attention, which then becomes warped into a desire to control and dominate her completely, including sexually. “Choose me, or the fire,” he tells her—and she chooses the fire.

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Had she chosen him, he would have come to despise her even more, and continue to blame her for his guilt over indulging his lustful appetites. He would never have been able to truly control her in any way except physically, and that would never have been enough for him. She would not have satisfied his desires in the way he hoped, because he would never have been content merely with her body; he wanted her total submission, her soul.

Notre Dame is the true heroine of the story, for not only does she shelter and protect Quasimodo, and offer sanctuary and peace to Esmeralda, she intervenes in saving both of them from Frollo. Immediately after Frollo quotes a scripture of condemnation (“And He shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit!”) while intending to murder them, Notre Dame trembles, Frollo loses his precarious position on one of the gargoyles, and when it comes to life in front of him, plunges into a literal fiery pit. He created the fire in his assault against Notre Dame; it is a hellish demise of his own making.

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Disney, either innocently or intentionally, visualizes a concept difficult for mortals to entirely understand; the nature of love and eternal punishment. Frollo creates hell with each decision he makes, leading him inevitably to his downfall; his hell began the moment he refused to repent on the steps of Notre Dame, and chose instead to have in mind a devious purpose for the child in his arms (“One day he may be of use to me”). His punishment exists because he created it. Frollo controls his own fate. He has walked in hell the entire time, and it is only in death that he enters into it fully. Meanwhile, Quasimodo began to create “heaven” in Notre Dame, where he maintained a purity of heart and of spirit through selfless love, despite his own persecution and abuse. Each time he is given a chance to do right or wrong, he chooses right… even when he does not like it, even when it causes him pain. He is the personification of true belief in Christ and its resulting merciful self-sacrificing nature, while Frollo is the personification of religion without repentance, entirely built on the preservation of control.

Note: I may continue doing write ups on Disney films. Might be fun to reflect on my childhood.

3 Replies to “Grace and Hellfire: Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

  1. This movie is so weird because it doesn’t look like a normal Disney movie and it’s very dark compared to most Disney movies. I saw it once and never had a desire to watch it again. But you’re right in that evil people don’t believe they’re evil.

    I’ve noticed that there are people out there that will defend egregious behavior until the very end. It kind of reminds me of how the bible says that people turn away from the truth.

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