When the time came for Victor Hugo to be born (1802), most of Europe’s cathedrals were falling into grave disrepair. Unlike man, cathedrals do not have a voice of their own, and no one was speaking for the aging gothic buildings. By the early 1800s, many cathedrals fell out of favor, became forgotten, and were letting the ivy in where mankind used to enter.
By 1830, Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral became so neglected and disused that it became dangerous to even enter for fear of falling pieces. By all appearances, the gothic age seemed to have finally closed, and many ancient buildings, including the Notre Dame Cathedral, were slotted for demolition.
The first few years of young Victor Hugo’s life were spent following the army with his father, who was a general under Napoleon’s brother Joseph.
Young Hugo was taught to hero-worship Napoleon, and in consequence, idealism and politics were to occupy his mind for the duration of his life. By 1812, he was living in Paris with his staunchly Royalist mother, which must have made a confusing impression on Victor Hugo’s mind. I believe the two extremes, Napoleon worship, and loyalty to the monarchy, gave Victor Hugo the complex foundation that he needed in order to write with the breadth that he did. He understood both worlds fully, which meant that he was one of the few to fully understand France given the time that he was living in.
He grew up in a Paris that was Post-Revolution. He didn’t experience any of the Revolution himself, but the adults around him did. During Hugo’s time, the gibbet still stood on the hills on the outskirts of town to hang criminals as warmings, but the guillotine no longer dropped its blade on innocents’ necks as a sort of entertainment in the center of town.
Hugo was living in the new Paris, the people’s Paris, the Paris inherited by the legacy of Napoleon’s code. It was to be an Enlightened era, but it was Victor Hugo who helped make it a Romantic era as well.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was Victor Hugo’s rallying cry to save the large crumbling gothic building that stood in the center of Paris. To read his book is to understand what it means to revere the people of the past and admire their incredible achievements.