Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most popular films of the Disney Renaissance. It’s famously dark, and Judge Claude Frollo might be the most evil Disney Villain of all time. And that makes sense: Victor Hugo’s original gothic novel makes the Disney film look like a heartwarming bedtime story. One of the things I love most about the movie is its complex portrayal of religion. My fellow authors point out how it contains both positive and negative portrayals of religious beliefs and people. But The Hunchback of Notre Dame contains more just a few Catholic characters; we also see some relatively faithful portrayals of Romani beliefs, too.
The movie begins in 1482 Paris with a group of Romani “gypsies” sneaking into the city. While Disney uses the term “gypsies,” it’s generally considered an offensive term, so I’m going to use the more correct name for these people, Romani. Judge Claude Frollo stops them, attacks them, and kills a woman on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral. Before he can drop the woman’s “monstrously” deformed son in a well, he’s confronted by the cathedral’s archdeacon. As penance, Frollo agrees to raise the child, calling him Quasimodo. After twenty years, we see that Quasimodo lives in the cathedral and works as the bell ringer, his only friends being three stone gargoyles. Against Frollo’s caution, Quasimodo attends the Festival of Fools. He’s crowned King of Fools, but the crowd turns on him once they discover his face isn’t a mask. The Romani Esmeralda defends Quasimodo, frees him, and evades arrest by Frollo’s men, led by Captain Phoebus. She follows Quasimodo inside Notre Dame, claiming sanctuary against arrest. Esmeralda prays for protection (“God Help the Outcasts”) and gives Quasimodo a map to her hideout, the Court of Miracles. Meanwhile, Frollo prays that his lust for Esmeralda be removed or she be “given” to him (“Hellfire”).
Frollo begins to burn down Paris in search of Esmeralda. Phoebus realizes that Frollo is evil, and Frollo condemns him to death. Esmeralda rescues Phoebus and takes him to the cathedral. Quasimodo confesses his feelings for Esmeralda, but discovers that she and Phoebus have fallen in love. Frollo manipulates Quasimodo to believe he knows where the Court of Miracles is, and in an attempt to warn the Romani, Quasimodo and Phoebus inadvertantly lead Frollo to the Court of Miracles. Esmeralda is captured to be burned at the stake, but Quasimodo rescues her. Frollo then follows them to a cathedral balcony and he and Quasimodo fall over the edge. Frollo dies, but Quasimodo is caught by Phoebus. Quasimodo gives Phoebus and Esmeralda his blessing and is welcomed by the crowd when he leaves the cathedral.
First, the movie is dripping with Catholic stuff. Notre Dame is the bishop’s church in Paris, and serves as a holy place of peace, safety, and security. Judge Frollo claims to be a pious and devout Catholic, but we see him embody almost every one of the seven deadly sins. This contrasts with the archdeacon at the beginning of the film, who rightly accuses Frollo of wrongdoing. We see the comparison even more fully during “Hellfire”, when Frollo blames everything but himself for his feelings for Esmeralda, while the archdeacon leads the monastic choir in prayer asking for God’s forgiveness. While Frollo sings “It’s not my fault… [God] made the Devil so much stronger than a man!” the ghostly figures in red cloaks (likely symbolizing the College of Bishops, embodying the teaching authority of the Catholic Church) sing “Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa,” Latin for “My fault, my fault, my greatest fault.” Frollo is drunk with power and has completely deluded himself, losing connection with everything, first and foremost the realities of his faith. Ironically, while Frollo sings of Hellfire, he displays exactly the kind of attitude and behavior that would condemn him to Hell.
Quasimodo’s story arc, on the other hand, shows the Christian ideal of sacrificial love. We don’t have much explicit evidence of Quasimodo’s faith (other than a few hints in his song “Heaven’s Light” that he’s got some sort of Christian belief), but growing up in Notre Dame surrounded by clergy, it’s safe to assume he’s something of a Catholic. He craves love and acceptance, but tries and fails to find it. He nearly gets acceptance by the crowd during the Festival of Fools, but they fear him when they realize his outward appearance isn’t a costume. He has a crush on Esmeralda because she’s one of the few people who has ever been kind to him, but she loves Phoebus. But despite his difficult life and constant rejection, Quasimodo still willingly sacrifices his life for Esmeralda and fights Frollo. The only reason why he lives is that Phoebus happens to save him. Quasimodo finally does find love and acceptance at the end of the film: the love of true friendship born in shared hardship and struggle. Frollo’s arc is dominated by his lust for Esmeralda; Quasimodo’s is marked by his love that denies his own feelings for her happiness.
But we also see elements of Esmeralda’s Romani beliefs, too. The word “gypsy” is based on the mistaken idea that the people came from Egypt, but the Romani people actually find their roots in India. The ancestors of the Romani people were Hindu. While the Romani usually adopted the local dominant religion of wherever they live, elements of Hindu theology still exist in the culture. For example, Shaktism is a prominent feature of Romani belief systems. Shaktism essentially centers around worship of the supreme divine feminine, the Mother Goddess. In many Romani groups, Shaktism takes the form of a feminine intermediary between the supplicant and God.
When Esmeralda enters the Cathedral for the first time, she makes her way to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus. This is where she directs the beginning of her song “God Help the Outcasts”. During the Middle Ages, Romani who lived in Catholic countries often prayed to the Virgin Mary or St. Anne (Mary’s mother) instead of directly addressing God or Christ. Notre Dame Cathedral is named for the Mother of God, (both “Our Lady” and “Our Mother”) so it makes sense that Esmeralda would feel safe there.
While The Hunchback of Notre Dame does a great job giving us some interesting Catholic characters, more could have been done with Esmeralda. She has some great moments as a champion of true justice, but she functions mostly as a love interest. Taking even a few moments to flesh out her religious beliefs would have offered a nice balance to all the Catholicism in the film. Without talking about Romani beliefs, we’re left to assume that she’s either Catholic or has no religion to speak of. Few people would be able to pick up on her Shaktism, which may not even be an intentional inclusion from Disney. Frollo calls Esmeralda a witch multiple times, but she doesn’t practice witchcraft in the slightest. Frollo names her a witch for her magic tricks, as many Christians in that time, full of fear, were wont to do when confronted with someone who didn’t worship they way they did. Including some more Romani religious elements would have been one more way to show how Frollo was wrong, bigoted, and evil, and serve to underscore the movie’s message of real love and friendship overcoming all barriers.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is certainly one of Disney’s masterpieces. I love most of the movies from their “Renaissance,” and they give audiences a lot of solid characters and plot. But at the same time, I believe it’s important to think about the ways the art we like can be better. As a Catholic, I appreciate the way Catholicism is portrayed in in the movie, since we don’t always get such a fair shake. However, it’s easy to ignore the fact that other groups need good representation too. It’s often more possible than we might think to make diversity of all sorts a priority when we create media.
Follow Lady Geek Girl and Friends on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook!
Esmeralda went in a Catholic Church, praying God, maybe she is simply a Catholic Romani?
(in the book she wasn’t not even a born Romani)
I think this is one of the few Disney movies I somehow missed as a kid. Interesting post–I’ll have to watch it now.
Thank you so much for writing this post! The Hunchback of Notre-Dame has always been one of my favourite pieces of literature and Esmeralda (quite possibly) is my favourite character in literature. I always love reading interpretations of HoND. I even have a rp blog for Esmeralda! Anyways, thanks for writing this :#3 it made my day
I’m Romani and I don’t know what nonsense you’ve been reading but Roma are an ethnic and not religious group; no Roma anywhere worship “Shaktism” or a “Mother Goddess”. That’s about as real as a Disney film.
Moreover, Esmeralda is NOT Romani; she is adopted (or somehow ends up raised by) Roma. Quasimodo is Romani, though abandoned as an infant at the steps of the church (both showing that Roma are no less capable than members of the majority of displaying true Christian ethics AND slightly mirroring the Moses meta-theme).
In any case, Disney doesn’t seem interested in real Romani culture or ethnicity, realism, or Victor Hugo’s novel.