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The most important theme in the novel is that a person cannot be judged on appearances. Since Frollo is a priest, a person would normally assume him to be a kind and righteous man. In truth, he is despicably cruel, manipulative, and evil. In contrast, most people judged Quasimodo to be the devil because of his disfigured outward appearance. Inside, however, he is filled with love and kindness, becoming La Esmeralda’s savior and protector. La Esmeralda is also misjudged. Because she is a gypsy street entertainer, the people of Paris believe she is evil; but like Quasimodo, she is filled with love and kindness. She marries Gringoire to save him from execution and steps forward on the pillory to give the parched and beaten Quasimodo a drink when no one else will.
The key minor theme in the book is the importance of fate in a person’s life. The characters in the book are seldom in control of their own destinies. La Esmeralda is snatched from her crib as a baby and brought up by gypsies. Because of her beauty, which she does not realize, Gringoire, Frollo, and Quasimodo fall in love with her; she, however, is in love with Captain Phoebus, who does not return her love because he believes she is beneath him. Because Frollo is obsessed with La Esmeralda, he stabs Phoebus in her presence; through no fault of her own, she is blamed for the crime and sentenced to die. Because of a previous kindness that La Esmeralda displayed to Quasimodo, he rescues her from hanging and gives her sanctuary in the cathedral. But because of his appearance, she cannot stand to look at her savior and protector as he watches over her in her cell at Notre-Dame. Frollo, the priest, is driven mad by La Esmeralda’s presence in his church. The priest tries to force himself on her, but the hunchback again comes to La Esmeralda’s rescue. Frollo is incensed that he cannot have the gypsy girl for his own and plots to have her executed. After stealing her from Notre-Dame, he puts her in Rolande’s tower, where La Esmeralda discovers that Pacquette is her mother. When Pacquette tries to protect her newly found daughter from the King’s army, she is struck by a soldier and killed. When Quasimodo sees his beloved La Esmeralda being hung, he kills Frollo in a rage and then perishes in grief. It is fate that causes the book to end in great tragedy.
The general mood of the novel is dark, somber, and tragic, with elements of mystery, the supernatural, and wickedness. Largely due to fate, all the major characters die in the course of the novel, adding to the tragedy of the book.