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In the beginning, the novel is narrated in chronological order, with the story of Quasimodo unfolding in a straightforward manner. As the book progresses, the plot becomes complicated by subplots and flashbacks. The many subplots serve to make the plot rich, complex, and multi-layered. The main plot revolves around the hunchback of Notre-Dame and the two people that he loves in life: Claude Frollo and La Esmeralda. The subplots revolve around Gringoire, Phoebus, Jehan, and Pacquette. Though the subplots cause many digressions in the narrative, they eventually contribute to and intertwine with the main plot.
The main plot of the novel follows the classic pattern of development. The first chapters are largely introductory. Notre- Dame, the main setting of the novel, is presented in detail. Quasimodo, Claude Frollo, La Esmeralda, and Gringoire are introduced, and their development begins. The conflict is also defined, as Quasimodo becomes the protagonist fighting against his ugliness and seeking a purpose in life beyond the ringing of the bells.
The rising action of the novel really begins with the attempted kidnapping of La Esmeralda. Since Claude Frollo has become obsessed with the gypsy entertainer, he tries to capture her for his own and forces Quasimodo to help him. When their kidnapping attempt is spoiled by Gringoire, Frollo flees the scene, leaving the hunchback to be arrested and flogged for the crime. After his public punishment, La Esmeralda emerges from the crowd to give him a drink of water. Quasimodo falls instantly in love with this beautiful woman, for no one, other than Frollo, has ever been kind to him before.
Frollo decides that if he cannot have La Esmeralda, no one will have her. As a result, he manipulates Gringoire into helping with a plan to rescue the gypsy girl from Notre-Dame. After the two men kidnap her from her tower cell, the evil priest tells La Esmeralda that she must love him or face execution. La Esmeralda chooses death.
The climax of the story occurs when Quasimodo discovers that he has lost La Esmeralda. Since she has been taken from her sanctuary in the cathedral, he is determined to punish the guilty party. The falling action revolves around the events of the next few hours, as both La Esmeralda and Frollo meet their deaths. When Quasimodo sees his beloved gypsy being hanged on the pillory and hears Frollo let out a fiendish laugh, Quasimodo becomes a madman. He charges the priest, who has raised him and been his master, and pushes him off the balcony to his death below. Quasimodo then realizes he is totally alone in the world.
In the conclusion to the novel, Hugo ties up all the loose ends of the plot. Gringoire becomes a successful writer; Phoebus marries Fleur de Lys; and Quasimodo grieves himself to death. He dies clinging to the dead body of La Esmeralda.