For a while now, I’ve taken an interest in the “monster” narrative in literature. In particular, it allows for discussions of outcasts in a unique way. One of my favorite books is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and one of my favorite movies is Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (gargoyles notwithstanding).
The two carry similar themes, but they offer a look at two different possible outcomes. Where do they overlap and where do they differ?
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is set in the backdrop of medieval France. The most powerful institution is the church. While Disney’s treatment of religion is more subtle than its source material, it still evident that religion holds a tremendous amount of power and influence.
Frankenstein, however, is set in a scientific world. The field is comparatively primitive in comparison to the modern era.
The origins of Quasimodo, the protagonist of Hunchback, is that he was a child of a gypsy who attempted to seek passage into France. When the band of gypsies is caught by Judge Claude Frollo, Quasimodo’s mother attempts to find sanctuary in Notre Dame. Her efforts are in vain, as Frollo yanks the baby out of her hands and he kills her on Notre’s Dame’s steps in the process.
From the start, Frollo is characterized as being clearly evil. However, he lacks the self-awareness to understand that his own actions are wrong. This can be seen in his interactions with the Archdeacon, where he rationalizes his murder and his attempt to euthanize Quasimodo. The only way the Archdeacon can appeal to Frollo is by invoking his religious beliefs. He cannot hide from the eyes from Notre Dame. In response, Frollo raises Quasimodo as his own. He bestows him with the name, which in the film’s narrative means “half-formed” (though in the novel it means “Low Sunday”, referring to the day when he was abandoned).
Victor Frankenstein’s beginning is spurred by the death of his mother. He buries himself in his work and is actually very successful. He unlocks the secret to bringing life back to dead tissue and constructs a gargantuan creature.
Anatomy of a Monster
Both Quasimodo and Frankenstein’s monster are assigned as monsters by the public because of their physical appearance. Frollo’s mistreatment of Quasimodo becomes a point of contention when Esmerelda criticizes Frollo for this mistreatment during his humiliation at the Feast of Fools.
However, Victor is instead horrified when his creation stirs. After the creature escapes, his interactions with other people are most decidedly negative. After he discovers his abominable appearance by gazing at his reflection in a pond, he attempts to befriend a poor family. He succeeds initially, as the father figure is blind. But the rest of the family is frightened by him. In his anger, he burns the house down and vows revenge on his creator for introducing him to a hostile and cruel world.
The rest of the novel is spent on a back and forth conflict between the creator and his creation. The creature is exposed to cruelty and retaliates with his own cruelty. He kills William, Victor’s brother. He frames the maid, Justine for the deed.
At this point, the stories converge in one element: Both Quasimodo and the monster desire love. Quasimodo seeks love because of Esmerelda’s kindness and the monster wants Victor to create a female companion because there is no one else who would love him.
Both of them are thwarted. Esmerelda is attracted to Phoebus instead. Victor begins to create a female companion but destroys the body before completion.
At this point, there is a divergence between how the characters handle the loss of their desires.
While upset, Quasimodo grows to accept the love between Esmerelda and Phoebus. He rejects the cruelty Frollo attempted to instill upon him and successfully saves Esmerelda’s life. In the end, Frollo is killed when the gargoyle he is standing upon comes to life and breaks apart from Notre Dame. The public view Quasimodo as a hero after the incident.
In contrast, Frankenstein’s monster retaliates once more by killing Victor’s friend, Henry Clerval. He then goes on to kill Victor’s betrothed, Elizabeth. Victor pursues the creature to the North pole. Captain Robert Walton finds Victor.
Victor tells his story to Walton. In the process, Victor discourages Walton from his ambitions. After the ship is trapped in pack ice and several members of his crew are lost, Walton decides to turn the ship around and head south.
Shortly thereafter, Victor dies. Walton finds the creature onboard, who is mourning over the loss of his creator. Instead of being brought peace, the creature realizes his actions have left him isolated from humanity. He decides to commit suicide on his own funeral pyre so that nobody will ever know of his existence. He ends up floating away on a raft of ice, never to be seen again.
Ultimately, the reason that Quasimodo was able to succeed was because he did not mirror the cruelty he faced. But Frankenstein’s monster mirrored the cruelty he received and it became his undoing. Meeting cruelty with cruelty is only a recipe for disaster.