Magic or Mental Illness? The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favourite films, and for good reason: it’s a dark, beautiful film on love, lust, heartbreak, justice and faith. But the use of Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends Victor, Hugo, and Laverne have drawn some criticisms for being contrived and out of place.

To an extent, I agree. There are a few instances where they just appear out of nowhere for no reason. When Esmeralda tells Quasimodo that he isn’t a monster we suddenly and jarringly cut to the gargoyles trying to listen in on them and crack a joke. But while some of their comedic scenes don’t work, they do serve a purpose. They represent the happy family Quasimodo never had. While I’m sure the archdeacon helped take care of Quasimodo at times, Frollo raised him under his controlling thumb. Ultimately, Laverne would represent motherly affection, Victor would represent fatherly advice and morals, and Hugo would be the supportive big brother. And they do play an active role in the third act in motivating Quasimodo and helping him fight.

The question I have, though, is this: are they meant to be real, or just a figment of Quasimodo’s imagination?

Under the trivia section of Victor, Hugo, and Laverne’s page on the Disney Wiki, it says:

  • In the DVD audio commentary Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale and Don Hahn suggest that it’s possible that the three gargoyles exist purely in Quasimodo’s mind and are in fact split off portions of his own personality created to deal with his loneliness. While this is only a possibility, it should be noted that the only other character in the first film to actually see a statue come to life is Frollo in the midst of his insanity. However, the true nature of these statues is open to interpretation, given Hugo’s endless flirtations with Djali. (X)

That brings up another point: Frollo seems to see things that aren’t there, either, at the end when he’s about to die (the aforementioned gargoyle coming to life) and during the “Hellfire” sequence.

Could Notre Dame be a living soul in this story? Or are Quasimodo and Frollo both suffering from mental illness?

On one hand, the gargoyles being magical creatures that only reveal themselves to Quasimodo seems the most likely. (It is a Disney film, after all). They are able to witness and react to things from a distance, always manage to show up wherever Quasimodo is, and are able to partake in the final battle. Perhaps they are the reason Quasimodo didn’t become as cruel as Frollo; they actually raised him with their love. But on the other hand, why only Quasimodo? Why not turn to life in front of Frollo and chase him out of the bell tower? Why not reveal themselves to Esmeralda, Quasimodo’s trusted friend?

And there’s also this crucial moment at the end of the “A Guy Like You” sequence. This is Quasimodo’s worldview right at the end of the song:

And this is what happens once he’s snapped back to reality:

So are the decorations also magical? Do the gargoyles have awesome powers (that they never seem to use outside this scene)? Or…was the whole scene in Quasimodo’s head? Does he, with his immense strength, carry the gargoyles around with him as his comfort objects? Is he actually doing all these things by himself but doesn’t realize it?

If the gargoyles are indeed all in Quasimodo’s head, it lends a very tragic, dark part of the story. Poor Quasimodo has been kept isolated for so long under the control of his domineering master, constantly reinforced with the message that he is hideous…and these gargoyles appear to tell him to follow his forbidden urges, that he will be loved.  Ultimately, this is how his mind would create a way to cope.

And then there’s Frollo, who also seems to have powerful visions. But he’s also a God-fearing man who spends at least twenty years thinking Romani people are evil, that he is righteous, that he has a ‘duty’, and his worldview is shattered when he becomes attracted to Esmeralda. It is common for people under strict Christian doctrine with mental health problems to suffer from blasphemous religious thoughts or inappropriate sexual thoughts, both of which Frollo have.

Let’s also remember that this movie is set in medieval times, rife with disease and danger and where many people suffered from ‘madness’, ‘insanity’, and ‘lunacy’. Without modern medicine, it is easy for these visions to go untreated and blame it on the work of the Devil.

Ultimately, both the “the gargoyles are real and Notre Dame is alive” and “the gargoyles are just very vivid figments of Quasimodo’s immersive imagination” both offer compelling cases. What do you think is the most likely?

I’m just glad that Quasimodo now has a proper support system in place and that his friends will slowly fill the gap left by his loneliness. You can read more about mental health in the middle ages HERE.

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Author: Laura Alexander

Hello! Laura here. I am autistic and I love animation. My fave movies are "Big Hero 6" and "Wreck-It Ralph". This is where I'll talk about my thoughts and feelings on animated shows and movies, among other things.

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