As the primary antagonist from Victor Hugo’s iconic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dom Claude Frollo has appeared in all of the book’s countless adaptations. What is a testament to this character’s depth is how memorable he remains regardless of the medium. Take for example Disney’s 1996 adaptation, which on its surface seems like it would be highly dubious. Yet, despite the animation company’s famous penchant for creating family entertainment out of dark subject matter, the evocation of Frollo’s lustful desire and xenophobic tendencies remain remarkably intact.
Despite this faithfulness there is a major difference separating the two versions of the man. The literary Frollo is a far more tragic figure, who feels powerless in the face of his culture and time. The cinematic is just the opposite, his megalomania is basically immune to almost any disruption, and his unilateral power remains largely uncontested throughout the story. If there is something that unites the two depictions of the character is their similar reaction to the luminous Esmeralda, which destabilizes their view of themselves and their place in the world, ultimately culminating in fiery, apocalyptic consequences.
I. The Writing on the Wall: Hugo’s Frollo and ANArKH
The Frollo we meet in the novel is a man starkly different from the sneering, malevolent schemer from the film. Claude Frollo at least initially is a highly compassionate man, his benevolence expressed quite movingly in his care for his orphaned younger brother Jehan, and through his decision to adopt the foundling Quasimodo. Yet, through his rearing of Jehan Frollo also experiences his undoing. His brother becomes a libertine and an alcoholic. He possesses none of the intellectual ambition or chaste morality of his older brother, which cripples Frollo emotionally.
One difference between the literary and cinematic Frollo lies in how each man views the idea of self-determination. In Hugo’s text Frollo is embittered due to what he perceives as his powerlessness. To this incarnation, despite his intellectual and personal endeavors, the exterior world has remained indifferent. Not only has he failed with rearing Jehan, but Quasimodo gradually grows into a deaf outcast. Even Frollo’s own social standing is degraded over time. The town pejoratively considers him little more than a “mad monk.”
The literary Frollo’s perception of the development of civilization is that it marches inexorably on, apathetic to human affairs and human happiness. This is established through the novel’s exploration of fate. In the novel’s prologue Hugo establishes this idea by analyzing the condition of Paris’s medieval architecture in his time period of the 19th Century, before drawing parallels between architecture and the story’s human characters living in the 15th century. The prologue begins with Hugo describing a word crudely scrawled on a wall of one of Notre Dame’s towers. That word is ANArKH or “fate,” which Hugo describes as being the very word “that this book is founded” upon.
“Thus with the exception of the fragile memory which the author of this book here consecrates to it, there remains to-day nothing of the mysterious word engraved within the gloomy tower of Notre Dame, – nothing of the destiny which it so sadly summed up. The man who wrote that word upon the wall disappeared from the midst of the generations of man many centuries ago; the word, in its turn, has been effaced from the wall of the church; the church will, perhaps, itself soon disappear from the face of the earth.”
Hugo’s thesis of Notre Dame being an emblem for Paris and for the entire character of the Middle Ages emerges here. A leading figure in literary Romanticism, Hugo takes on the form of an omniscient narrator in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in order to express an anxiety regarding France’s development from the 15th to the 19th century, specifically in relation to the architecture. The main source of Hugo’s concern in the context of the novel is the Notre Dame Cathedral – which is characterized as the heart of the city.
Hugo’s concern is that through the progression of time and through calamitous events such as the French Revolution, the city’s medieval ethos is in danger of being worn away completely. The book posits that this is unfortunate, characterizing the city’s architecture as one of the primary vehicles for mankind to move its ideals from one period to the next, with edifices serving as the very nexus of culture. By showing the word “fate” imprinted upon the facade of Notre Dame, Hugo evokes the idea that the degradation of a culture’s history is nearly inevitable without human intervention. In the author’s time this intervention would come to fruition with the restoration of the cathedral, which began in earnest in 1840.
Hugo’s thoughts on the fate of Paris’s medieval edifices provide greater insight for the reader regarding Claude Frollo’s existential malaise. Frollo, as an archdeacon of Notre Dame, enjoys a position of some power in a city that is largely divided between those living in impecunious squalor and those existing in opulent splendor. His anxiety regarding what he perceives as his lack of agency and the decline in his overall influence is intertwined with the book’s depiction of a society’s cultural ethos being largely ephemeral. This is communicated in one of the book’s most virtuoso sections, the dramatically titled chapter from Book VI: This Will Kill That.
The chapter analyzes a wild statement that Frollo makes in the preceding chapter. While addressing some visitors in his modest quarters Frollo remarks how the demonstrative, influential structure of Notre Dame will inevitably be undone by the integration of new technological developments such as Gutenberg’s printing press (developed in the mid-15th century). Hugo, in his omniscient style, unfettered by time and a space, hovers over the action while offering this interpretation:
“To our mind, this thought had two faces. In the first place, it was a priestly thought. It was the affright of the priest in the presence of a new agent, the printing press. It was the terror and dazzled amazement of the men of the sanctuary, in the presence of the luminous press of Gutenberg. […] It was the cry of the prophet who already hears emancipated humanity roaring and swarming; who beholds in the future, intelligence sapping faith, opinion dethroaning belief, the world shaking off Rome.”
Frollo sadness when he states that, “Alas! alas! small things come at the end of great things; a tooth triumphs over the a mass. The Nile rat kills the crocodile, the swordfish kills the whale, the book will kill the edifice.” relates to how he views himself. Caught at a critical moment in history, where French society had emerged out of the horror of The Black Death, the tumult of The Crusades, and the carnage of The Hundred Years War, the monk’s time period of the Late Middle Ages was one of fundamental change. As Hugo states, France was moving culturally forward, assuming the path where “All civilization begins in theocracy and ends in democracy.” More importantly, this historical period was one of the first times where people were capable of perceiving that forward momentum. It was a period where the Ancient Roman Empire was beginning to lose its automatic status as the ultimate apogee of civilization. Individuals began to look forward instead of backward. People started to imagine what civilization could be, not what it once was.
With the priest perceiving himself to be largely stagnant, existing in a time of flux, the character’s obsession with the fantastical practice of alchemy begins to gain clarity. Having exhausted nearly all other intellectual practices (he displays mastery over several different languages, in addition to the practices of science and medicine) Frollo’s fascination with alchemy seems indicative of his quest for enacting change and of transcending into his purest form.
At one section of the novel, directly before his bombastic outcry regarding how the book will inevitably kill the edifice, Frollo (in an almost heretical fashion) recounts his reasons for abandoning traditional scholarly pursuits in favor of alchemical practices. “Gold is the sun; to make gold is to be God. Herein lies the one and only science. I have sounded the depths of medicine and astrology, I tell you! Naught, nothingness! The human body, shadows! the planets, shadows!” Alchemy is a viable option for a man who had committed himself to learning and then to the cloth, but had still come up emotionally bankrupt and whose benediction had only ended in disappointment. This type of existential angst, so predominant in the constitution of the literary Frollo, is virtually non-existent in the adaptation of the character by the ol’ Walt Disney Company 160 years later. There what we find is not a man looking for something to imbue his life with meaning. This incarnation of Frollo believes himself to be the one who imbues meaning in everything else.
II. “I Am Your Only Friend”: The Disney Frollo and the God Complex
Congruent with his literary beginnings the Disney version of Frollo is a man who is morally rigid. There are a great many differences however. This Frollo is a justice minister who seems to possess nearly unlimited autocratic power over all of Paris. Supremely powerful and confident Dom Claude is not out for validation or emotional enrichment like his literary predecessor. For this depiction of Dom Claude the elements of the exterior world move in accordance to the whims of his belief structure. He almost represents the version of Frollo who appears near the end of Hugo’s novel, the man driven to reestablish total control over his world through possession or destruction.
There is a moment where Frollo’s unshakable self-confidence wavers. In the film’s opening he assaults a young mother, tearing her child from her desperate arms and kicking her into the stone steps of Notre Dame – killing her instantly. The child who Frollo has now orphaned is who will become the titular hunchback, Quasimodo, who he then attempts to drown in a nearby well after snarling that he is a ill-shaped “monster.” As he prepares to drop the tot into a premature and watery grave a shout rings out. It is the archdeacon of the cathedral, who warns Frollo that his actions imperil his immortal soul and that the eyes of Notre Dame are currently locked upon him.
The possibility that he is fallible becomes real to Dom Claude in this scene, at least ephemerally. His sense of self shaken, he then reveals his penchant for duplicity. He vows to use this misshapen babe for his own purposes. In this moment, with the “eyes of Notre Dame” influencing Frollo’s behavior, there is a rare occurrence where he relinquishes his right to self-determination. The edifice of the church fuses together with that of the Parisian, influencing his actions.
This dramatic opening strikes a similar thematic cord to Hugo’s treatment of Medieval Paris and its architecture, showing how there is a connection between the demonstrative facades and human behavior. The effect that the church has on Frollo, especially in regards to the canonized stone figures staring down upon him, expresses quite explicitly how deeply Frollo intertwines his notion of an ethereal God with tangible brick and mortar structures. This foreshadows his eventual actions later during the film’s climax, where he attempts to reclaim his original form as a self-made God by ascending to the vertical limit of the gloomy, besieged church.
Yet, this is getting ahead of ourselves. Because while the two versions of Frollo differ strongly in their sense of self, in addition to how they each view their ability to influence their environments, the men are much closer in their response to sexuality. This is a fact which must be addressed before any climactic action can be discussed.
III. Esmeralda and Hellfire: The Passion & Fatal Undoing of Dom Claude
For both the cinematic and the literary Frollo, the factor that finally precipitates a reckoning in belief is the gypsy (a sultry, adult woman in the film and a precocious, lovesick girl in the book) Esmeralda. Almost immediately both versions of Frollo are bewitched by Esmeralda’s spectacular beauty. Yet, her beauty also ignites an inner-conflict in both the literary and cinematic Dom Claude. This inner-conflict leads to a climax that looks, on the surface at least, to be almost identical across mediums. However, the emotion percolating underneath the actions that both men take do possess subtle differences, congruent with the inner-lives and self-perceptions of both incarnations of the character.
In Hugo’s novel Frollo’s actions, although certainly repugnant and violent, are born primarily out of jealousy, humiliation and finally resignation. The literary Frollo is certainly defined to some degree by self-loathing. His actions towards Esmeralda are indicative of a chaotic, disturbing oscillation between the desire to possess her and the desire to destroy what she represents: the annulment of his identity as a pious man. Yet, arguably the most significant thing Esmeralda triggers is a much more common problem. Over the course of the text Frollo simply experiences the barbarous pain of unrequited love. He is looking for something to complete him, to fill the void created through his past failures.
This is in no way meant to minimize or disavow the powerful influence of Frollo’s ecclesiastical position in regards to how his psyche reacts to the pinprick of sexual feeling. Bitter and virginal, the priest’s attitudes regarding this matter were formed early on, when he became solely responsible for the rearing and betterment of his younger brother. “He resolved to consecrate himself entirely to a future for which he was responsible in the sight of God, and to never have any other wife, any other child than the happiness and fortune of his brother. Therefore he attached himself more closely than ever to the clerical profession.” Frollo in a way contributed to his own ostracization through his adherence to his faith and through his selfless devotion to his younger brother.
What is particularly fascinating about the literary Frollo’s delirious and lustful fixation on poor Esmeralda, is that this dynamic strongly reflects Hugo’s ideas about his city’s medieval architecture that were discussed earlier in this essay. If an edifice such as Notre Dame represents the Gothic heart of the city and if, as Hugo contends, that heart has been degraded through the cultural progression of a people, then the city has to make a critical decision about whether or not to intervene in that edifice’s fate. Similarly, Frollo position and sense of self has deteriorated through (what he perceives to be) personal failures and through extenuating circumstances (such as the proliferation of reading and the decline of the church). He now has to make crucial decisions about how to best move forward and how to react to the change in him that Esmeralda prompts.
Unfortunately, Frollo seeks not to empower himself, a fact conveyed during a scene in the priest’s quarters. During this scene the debauched Jehan comes to Frollo’s hovel looking for another financial handout. The priest, who at this point has already begun to sink into the abyss of madness, does not initially notice Jehan’s arrival. Overcome by passion he mutters to himself about his attempts at alchemy before suddenly springing to his feet and cutting the word “ANArKH” into the hard stone wall of his hovel. This act indicates a crucial change in Frollo’s character. Already possessing a somewhat quixotic philosophy on life, it shows that Frollo’s encounter with Esmeralda has precipitated his complete jettisoning of the idea of free will. It has turned him even more loopy. The disavowal of self-determination and the reverence towards fate is what is communicated in the very next scene after Frollo has conversed and debated with his brother Jehan.
While Frollo is talking with another visitor (named Jacques) a fly becomes hopelessly tangled in a spider’s web at the corner of the priest’s Gothic room. This disruption to the placidity of the web provokes the appearance of a monstrous arachnid, who quickly scurries towards the unfortunate bug. Frollo, powerfully transfixed by this scene, stops Jacques from intervening to save the fly, unleashing a completely unhinged tirade where he explains how they must let fate take its course.
“‘Oh Yes!’ continued the priest, in a voice which seemed to proceed from the very depths of his being, ‘behold here a symbol of all. She flies, she is joyous, she is just born; she seeks the spring, the open air, liberty: oh yes! but let her come in contact with the fatal network, and the spider issues from it, the hideous spider! Poor dancer! poor predestined fly! Let things take their course, Master Jacques, ’tis fate! Alas! Claude thou art the spider! Claude thou art the fly also! Thou wert flying towards learning, light, the sun. Thou hadst no other care but to reach the open air, the full daylight of eternal truth; but in precipitating thyself towards the dazzling window which opens upon the other world, – upon the world of brightness, intelligence and science – blind fly! senseless, learned man! thou hadst not perceived the subtle spider’s web, stretched by destiny betwixt the light and thee – thou hast flung thyself headlong into it, and now thou art struggling with head broken and mangled wings between the iron antennae of fate! Master Jacques! Master Jacques! Let the spider work its will!'”
In this amazing monologue Frollo shows the full extent of his agitation, associating himself as both victim and predator, spider and fly. In his eyes the roles that Esmeralda and himself occupy are amorphous, continually in flux; she has been drawn into his web and he into hers. However, what remains constant is a certain level of rationalization; Frollo wants to believe that fate is now the main precipitating factor behind his actions, and, more importantly, that moral caveats have been swept aside. In a way by occupying both roles in the spider/fly metaphor Frollo has begun to already wage his inner battle with himself, the battle that will eventually immolate him. The priest feels ensnared by the web, resentful perhaps as he mentions how he had solely been concerned with pursuing scholarly practices before becoming entangled. Still, he seems eager to resign himself to the web of fate, more than likely as he had already been in such an unhealthy mental, emotional and spiritual state before encountering young Esmeralda.
While both versions of Frollo struggle with feelings that are contradictory to their religious beliefs, Disney’s depiction of Dom Claude does not act under the assumption that by possessing Esmeralda he will suddenly become happy. In fact, Frollo seems wildly enthusiastic about his life before encountering Esmeralda during the Feast of Fools. His sexual longing for the dancer appears to manifest itself primarily through anger. Why? Well, Frollo considers himself far purer than the rest of humanity. By accepting that he has a sexual identity, Frollo would then have to consider the fact that he is not a god, but a man, one of many struggling through life in medieval Paris.
This is not an option, because Frollo hates Paris and to a larger extent humanity itself. He even sings passionately about this in the immortal clip: Hellfire (posted below), where he claims that he is more morally scrupulous than the, “common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd.”
Like the Dom Claude from Hugo’s text, Disney’s version of Frollo is another case of a man paralyzed by the terror of love and desire. However, the maladies Esmeralda introduces are even broader than that. The gypsy does not simply refute Frollo’s identity as pious, chaste man, she also challenges his identity as an aggressive, gypsy-hunting zealot. Frollo’s subsequent actions after meeting her are about reclaiming control and reestablishing stability with his world. The central obstacle in this endeavor is the lingering notion of a punitive deity. Frollo fears his crimes being seen by the eyes of God, which manifested itself in his anxiety over committing murder in the sight of Notre Dame’s facade (seen in the film’s opening).
Frollo’s attempt to finally annihilate both Quasimodo and Esmeralda high above Paris (and above a majority of Notre Dame’s religiously-themed architecture) is perhaps the purest way to visualize the difference between the literary and the cinematic man. It is indicative of the cinematic version’s attempt at mastery of fate, whereas the literary Frollo is defined by his resignation to fatality. Just compare two bits of dialogue that each Frollo utters while encountering Esmeralda for the final time:
“And he shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit!”
“Destiny gives us to one another. I am going to decide as to your life; you will decide my soul.”
What the final moments between Esmeralda and Frollo point to is that while both versions of the character feel disrupted by her beauty and their reaction to it, and while both eventually issue her an ultimatum (which disturbingly is only copulation or oblivion), the two characterizations diverge regarding the issue of control. The cinematic perceives that he had it and lost it temporarily. He then eventually attempts to reclaim it through ascending above the facades of Notre Dame (out of the sight-line of God) and killing those who threatened his worldview and self-perception. Conversely, Hugo’s Frollo long ago became embittered to life’s various disappointments and gave up on the idea of self-empowerment. The introduction of Esmeralda obliterates any vestige of belief in his own agency. It allows him to surrender his pious mindset to what perceives as the web of fate, a force that had already negated his efficacy as a caregiver to Jehan and Quasimodo. In other words, Disney’s Frollo wants to be God and the literary one wants to get him out-of-the-way. He wants other forces or other people such as Esmeralda to shoulder the responsibility for his actions.
IV. Concluding Thoughts
One can see that even in the conclusion, where both Frollos deliver an ultimatum, there are subtle differences in their motivations. The basic situation however is communicated rather seamlessly across mediums. In both cases, Dom Claude is incapable of understanding how his life fits within the larger structure of history. He also cannot reconcile how, like all human lives, a large portion of his rigid ideology is governed or flat-out constituted by unseen forces that predate his life by years or even decades. Finally, the character of Frollo in both the book and the film can not accept the powerful transience of human existence or the fluctuating, always evolving status of human civilization.
This complexity is what makes the character resonate so powerfully. Also, because Hugo is intuitive enough to intertwine the plight of his 15th century characters with the declining state of Gothic architecture in the 19th century, he is able to articulate the importance one must place on self-determination. This theme percolates with the literary Frollo, whose lack of self-worth pushes him to shed belief in his autonomy. The Disney version of the character, although on the surface appearing far more confident in his sense of self, is also hardly well-equipped to think critically about his beliefs and actions. His moral absolutism is too potent; he cannot change with the times. The character’s demise is precipitated because of this, because of the inability to adapt to a time where culture was diversifying, artistry and knowledge was being more widely disseminated, and cultural pluralism was on the rise. The topical applicability of this idea to our own contemporary times is stunning. We also live in an era defined by flux in a social, technological and cultural context, but are also sadly burdened by authoritative figures deeply entrenched in stagnant ways of thinking.
And it’s not that Hugo is advocating for a perennial dismissal of all that is old – far from it. Hugo calls for the preservation of the edifices marking past epochs. He even seems to admonish much of his own time period, especially the French Revolution. That event sought to dismiss the past, but in doing so chose not to build from it and thus fell prey to replicating some of its injustices (specifically the ghoulish theater of The Terror). If anything, Frollo is a construct to view the importance of respecting the past, but also being willing to change with an ephemeral world and recognize that we’re all just passing through this life. By finding that balance one can perhaps gain some peace, even when mired in an existential crisis or standing at the edge of a moral abyss.