Does the media provide a correct portrayal of people with disabilities? Is Quasimodo, of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, accurately portrayed as a person with a physical disability? To address these queries we will discuss, first, the plot of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, then examine the specifics of Quasimodo’s character, and last and most importantly, we will scrutinize whether or not the portrayal of disability is an accurate one. In order to understand the main character and his disability, we must first understand his story.
What is The Hunchback of Notre Dame essentially about? As inspired by Victor Hugo’s classic novel published in 1831, the story takes place in medieval Paris in the year 1482, specifically starting on January 6 – the day of the historical ‘Festival of Fools,’ which really did annually occur in Paris.2 It begins with a flashback of Quasimodo’s infancy, showing how he came to be raised by the antagonist, Claude Frollo, the Minister of Justice.3 “Frollo, . . . . who detests adopted Quasimodo when he was a baby as a penance for killing his mother, . . . . but tells Quasimodo that his mother abandoned him at birth.”4 Clopin, the narrator, and male leader of the gypsies, explains the meaning of the cruel name Frollo gave Quasimodo – “half-formed,” then brings the story back to the present, twenty years later, introducing Quasimodo as a young man – “the man and the monster.”5 During Quasimodo’s first appearance, we see part of the monster.
After Quasimodo’s first appearance, we see the master/servant relationship that Quasimodo has with his “father,” Frollo. Despite Frollo’s sermon-like lecture to Quasimodo about the importance of staying in the bell tower, Quasimodo heeds his three gargoyle friend’s advice to, essentially, assert his independence and go to the Festival of Fools. Quasimodo has always watched it, for the past twenty years. He had been in fear of disobeying his master and not being accepted by the normal people. However, someone who grows to be more accepting of Quasimodo is Esmeralda.
At the festival, Esmeralda, a beautiful, tempting dancer as well as the female leader of the gypsies, mistakes Quasimodo’s appearance to be costumed and masked for the purpose of the festival’s King of Fools competition. She invites him up on stage and he is later discovered to be real (instead of masked). Clopin then invites the crowd to crown Quasimodo the King of Fools for having the ugliest face in Paris.
For a few moments Quasimodo is celebrated. Shortly after, however, he experiences a terrible humiliation, where food is thrown at him, and he is tied down like a wild animal. He sees the crowd’s tyranny and hears the awful calls and jeers reverberated in his ears. Esmeralda, soon realizes what is happening to the “poor creature,” and takes pity on him and the plight he is in.6 She cuts the ropes binding him and helps him to his feet.
Meanwhile, while this entire humiliating situation is going on, Quasimodo’s master sits back and watches while, in degradation, Quasimodo learns his lesson – essentially encouraging the peasant-crowd’s oppression of his would-be son. Frollo, regardless of the desire he feels for Esmeralda, charges her for the insolence she displays when he asks her not to help Quasimodo. At her retort of calling him the real King of Fools, he demands her arrest. The Guard then marks her as a fugitive, and Frollo marks her as an object of his desire. Frollo is not the only man who is spellbound by Esmeralda, there are two others – Phoebus, Captain of the Guard, and Quasimodo, Bell-Ringer of Notre Dame.
Realizing they have a common love interest, Phoebus sees past Quasimodo’s appearance when Quasimodo helps Esmeralda escape. Quasimodo and Phoebus become allies in aiding Esmeralda (and the gypsy population). Phoebus further encourages Quasimodo’s assertion to independence as well as acceptance. Quasimodo feels that friendship is strained for a time when Esmeralda chooses Phoebus as her love interest instead of Quasimodo. While Esmeralda is kind to Quasimodo, and even sort of identifies with the discrimination he experiences, it’s apparent that she is still somewhat repulsed by his appearance. This is an example of “the main theme of [Hugo’s] book…,” as well as the re-occurring theme in the movie – “…the cruelty of social injustice.”7
The violent search for Esmeralda and the gypsies is led by Frollo, and despite Phoebus and Quasimodo’s rebellious actions against Frollo, Esmeralda is apprehended and put to death by burning at the stake. In contrast to Hugo’s novel, Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmeralda, both of them live. In another contrast to Hugo’s novel, instead of Quasimodo throwing his autocratic master/father off of Notre Dame, Frollo falls to his death from a weakly attached gargoyle that gives way from his weight. Now that we understand the story surrounding Quasimodo, we can look further into his character.