For those of you that don’t know, Esmeralda is the leading lady of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris – or as it’s more widely known, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Set in Medieval Paris, the novel centres around Esmeralda, a beautiful Romani girl, and the various men who obsess over her – and like any Victor Hugo novel it also crams in a lot of stuff about sacrifice, racism, architecture, passion, faith, hypocrisy and yet more architecture. The book has been an enormous success, adapted for a range of different audiences, and Esmeralda herself has been at the centre of pretty much every single version.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: Once again I’ll be focusing on the original Victor Hugo novel, but I may reference other adaptations from time to time.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
In pretty much every single version of the story Esmeralda isn’t really in control of what’s happening to her, and that’s because so much of the plot is just other people falling in love with her. She is just rolling along doing her own thing, and then BAM! A creepy priest guy is trying to kidnap/rape her, a random soldier guy is trying to talk her into bed, people are accusing her of witchcraft and Quasimodo drags her off to Notre Dame for her own safety.
She does try and mitigate this a little bit. In the novel, when Gringoire breaks into the Romani encampment she agrees to marry him, thereby saving his life. She goes to Phoebus and tries to start a relationship with him – but in most adaptations that backfires horrifically. She chooses the possibility of death over Frollo’s weird molesty offer. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Esmeralda is reacting to a series of options put in front of her, rather than truly making her own choices. She does have an opportunity to make choices for herself, but these choices were engineered by other people. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Esmeralda’s hobbies aren’t really mentioned. We know she’s a dancer, but it’s not 100% clear if this is because she actually enjoys it or because that’s all she can do to make enough money to live on.
Her beliefs and goals are clearer. In pretty much every adaptation it’s made very clear that Esmeralda tries to be a good person despite her circumstances – like most of the other gypsies she is very poor, and something of a social outcast. It would be easy for her to internalise this and become quite bitter after the way she’s treated, but Esmeralda quite clearly believes that being a good person is more important. This ties into her goals – she wants to alleviate what suffering she can (by marrying Gringoire and giving Quasimodo water), to stay as far away from Frollo as she possibly can, and to have a happy life with Phoebus – but that doesn’t always end well.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
For the most part Esmeralda is a pretty consistent character in terms of both her skills and personality. She’s kind, naïve, brave, compassionate and occasionally quite stubborn and defiant, and this remains the case throughout the book. In terms of her skills we know that she’s an excellent dancer and street performer, and it can also be assumed that she’s good at training animals, as she’s got this little goat that follows her everywhere and does cute little magic tricks.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
Unfortunately, you really can’t describe Esmeralda without referencing her love life or her appearance as it’s so tied into her role in the story. The entire novel pivots around her physical beauty and the men who admire her – take that out and there’s no plot at all, just a lot of stuff about architecture.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Esmeralda’s decisions are all directly linked to her love life. She marries Gringoire to save his life, but won’t touch him as she’s in love with Phoebus. She agrees to meet Phoebus for a secret date, even though he’s engaged – but this is largely because Phoebus has manipulated her into believing he loves her. She turns both Frollo and Quasimodo down repeatedly, and spends most of the book reacting to their various advances.
Esmeralda’s love life is completely central to the plot. The conflict of the novel is essentially about who she will or will not sleep with, and as she has no other significant goals she doesn’t really get to make decisions about anything else. What’s more, she actually has very little control over her own love life. Phoebus manipulates her and often ignores her objections, Quasimodo kidnaps her and tries to wear her down with kindness, and Frollo just straight-up tries to rape her, obsessing over her creepily for several months, orchestrating a few kidnap attempts, accusing her of witchcraft and actively causing her torture and death when she turns him down. And she’s sixteen years old. Will none of them leave this poor girl alone??
To sum up: Esmeralda’s story is directly linked to her choice of boyfriend – and she doesn’t even have all that much choice. There’s no way she’s passing this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Not really, no. Esmeralda’s actually a pretty static character. She is good and kind when the novel begins and good and kind when it ends – only when it ends she’s also dead. She learns nothing as the story goes on and doesn’t change her views at all. This is actually very surprising when you consider how much she’s been through – attempted kidnapping, framed for attempted murder, torture, escaped execution and attempted rape.
There’s one scene towards the end of the novel that really drives this home for me. Esmeralda has escaped execution and is living under sanctuary in Notre Dame, thanks to Quasimodo. She knows that Phoebus, who could have cleared her name at her trial, has done nothing to save her – but she still loves him. Quasimodo, who loves her too, makes a point of this by showing her two vases full of flowers – one ugly but whole pot, and one crystal vase that is beautiful but cracked, allowing the water to leak out. As you might expect the flowers in the manky pot are thriving, and the ones in the crystal vase are dead. They both know that the pots represent Esmeralda’s potential boyfriends – Quasimodo being the pot and Phoebus being the vase – and that it’s all a metaphor for how they are treating her. But Esmeralda still cherishes the dead flowers, completely unable to reconcile her love for Phoebus with his terrible betrayal.
This makes the static nature of Esmeralda’s character very clear. She does not learn or grow from her experiences even though they have caused her very serious harm. Of course you could argue that her character is meant to be static – she’s supposed to represent an inherently good person resisting the pressures of poverty and ostracisation – but I’d argue that it’s very possible to remain a good person while learning to recognise a situation that is no good for you.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Esmeralda does have flaws and her biggest by far is her inability to change her own viewpoint. We see this in her continued rejection of Quasimodo and her blind devotion to Phoebus – she’s simply unable to see how her own resistance to change is doing her harm. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Actually, not really. Esmeralda gets captured a lot and this is what drives the events of the plot forward. When you take out all the kidnapping attempts the only other kind of influence she has is her status as an A-grade hottie. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Esmeralda conforms to several different gender stereotypes and inverts some of the others – she’s quite a complicated character in this regard. What really causes this is the intersection of two different parts of her identity – Esmeralda as a woman, and Esmeralda as a Romani.
If you look at Esmeralda as a woman, without bringing any aspect of racial or ethnic identity into your analysis, it’s easy to see her as a very traditional character. She’s a young, beautiful, innocent girl who does very little, holds onto her virtue as best she can, and dies a tragic death. This is a stock character we’ve seen since time began. Even when you add in her passionate affair with Phoebus – where he seduces her, allows her to take the blame for his attempted murder and ultimately hands her over to be executed – this still isn’t anything particularly new. The story of the beautiful, innocent girl seduced and brought into trouble is as old as time itself, and it fits Esmeralda perfectly.
Where she starts to get a bit more subversive is when you look at Esmeralda as a Romani. There aren’t many sympathetic portrayals of Romani and Travellers in fiction – of course things have gotten better as cultural ideas have developed, but there’s no getting away from the fact that itinerant peoples have historically been portrayed as vagrants, thieves and worse. Cher even sang a song about it.
Hunchback is one of the few stories that has a very sympathetic Romani lead, and the fact that it was written in the nineteenth century makes it even more unusual. Hugo goes to some lengths to avoid Romani stereotypes – for example, Esmeralda is accused of witchcraft but it’s made perfectly clear to the reader that she has never meddled in magic, subverting the centuries-old stereotype of the ‘magical fortune-teller’. But what really makes Hugo’s portrayal of Esmeralda noteworthy is the sheer lengths he goes to to establish her purity, virtue and innocence. Romani women were (and in some places, still are) widely stereotyped as being quite promiscuous, so the fact that Hugo went to such lengths to convey Esmeralda’s purity is actually pretty ground-breaking, especially if you consider when it was written. This is a direct subversion of a trope that has plagued Romani women for centuries and it deserves to be noted.
However, this isn’t exactly the revolutionary portrayal I was hoping for. As a Romani woman, Esmeralda is still exoticised to a ridiculous extent, both by the other characters and by Hugo himself. When you read through all the long, loving descriptions of her exotic beauty, passionate nature and sensual movements it’s pretty clear that she’s being fetishized. She’s seen as a sexual being whether she wants to be or not – and most of the time, she doesn’t want that. And of course, this is further undercut at the end of the novel, when we discover that Esmeralda is not actually Romani by birth, but a French girl who was kidnapped as a baby – another old stereotype about the Romani which I could really do without.
Long story short, you can’t really separate out the different pieces of Esmeralda’s identity – you have to talk about her racial and gender identity together, as they both have an effect on how she is treated. All of the stereotypes that inform her character (both ethnic and gendered) interact in pretty complicated ways, being pretty backward and pretty progressive at the same time, but in different ways. I’m going to give her half a point, as I feel that would best represent this weird balancing act, but I can’t help feeling I’m being generous.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Esmeralda doesn’t have many relationships with other female characters – there’s really only two that are worth noting. There’s Fleur-de-Lis, Phoebus’s fiancé: the two girls are jealous of each other (Fleur-de-Lis because Esmeralda is prettier than her, Esmeralda because Fleur-de-Lis is engaged to Phoebus) and that’s about it. The other relationship Esmeralda has is with Gudule, a random woman who hates Esmeralda because she believes Romani stole and ate her baby – who of course, turns out to be Esmeralda’s mother. Neither of these relationships have any real depth and both are sketched along some pretty broad lines, so I’ll give half a point here.
FINAL SCORE: 4.5/10
Esmeralda is a consistent character with her own goals and beliefs and a weakness that holds her back but ultimately, that isn’t enough to let her pass my test. When you get right down to it she just doesn’t do anything for herself. Later adaptations have tried to mitigate this by making her more active, but at the heart of Hunchback is a story about three men trying to possess a young woman, regardless of what she thinks of this. There is no part of her story that is separate from this, so she’s never going to pass.
Next week, I’ll be going back to the work of one of my favourite authors – Neil Gaiman. Door, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.