Classism, Ableism and Sexism in the 1939 film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

In the 1939 film adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, various characters are subjected to different forms of discrimination due to their social statuses, physical appearance, and even gender/sex. Discrimination in all its forms is a timeless issue in the society; classism, ableism, and sexism, as forms of discrimination, are prevalent in the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame and similar examples exist in the contemporary society.

There are various sectors of society portrayed in the film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Nearly all spheres that comprise the modern day society find representation in the film. The King, who plays a prominent role in the society potrayed, represents the leadership authority or structure of governance.

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The clergy and the church find symbolism by the gigantic cathedral of Notre Dame. The Cathedral, according to Tonkin, is “a vindication of the Gothic style” of art and architecture, still prevalent in many western towns and cities even today (40). There are gypsies, street urchins, and all other members of society as can be found in any of today’s ‘modern’ society.

Esmeralda herself is a gypsy, a factor that bears down on her sense of self, because she experiences discrimination for her lifestyle on the fringes of society and the accompanying poverty. At one point in the film, Esmeralda prays and acknowledges her frustration at being an outcast. She wonders if her prayers will ever be heard because in her mind the prayers of other more economically endowed members of society should take precedence over her own.

The society depicted in the film thus practices a level of classism as a form of discrimination. As a gypsy, Esmeralda and her companions experience a system of discrimination that leaves them economically underpowered and socially downtrodden, a typical classism. In contemporary society, low earning members of society who engage in all sorts of activities in order to earn their keep (as exemplified by gypsies) are usually relegated to the lower classes of society.

In both the film adaptation and the book itself, one of the chief protagonists is Quasimodo, a hunchback variously described as ugly and portrayed quite grotesquely in the film. Quasimodo is the church bell ringer, an occupation that renders him deaf due to the loud sounds of the bell. He is abandoned as a child; most likely his mother was uncomfortable with his looks because he is exchanged for the fairer and more beautiful Esmeralda.

Throughout the film, people mock and deride Quasimodo for his looks and his disability. He is crowned the “pope of fools” during the “feast of fools” festival. According to Whittington-Walsh, “People with physical and mental disabilities have been displayed for human entertainment and profit as human oddities for hundred of years” (696). Ableism, the practice of discriminating against another based on his or her physical disabilities is meted out on Quasimodo.

When Quasimodo is up close with the beautiful Esmeralda, the contrast in their looks bears down on him and he laments at how ugly he is especially since Esmeralda is strikingly beautiful. He describes himself as half man and half beast, stating that he is as shapeless as they come. Even the compassionate Esmeralda is revolted by his look to a point of not letting him kiss her hand.

In various instances in the film, Quasimodo simply looks down at people from the cathedral’s walls and wonders what it would feel like to mix and mingle with other people. He craves non-discriminative and non-judgmental human interaction.

In all his life, people have interacted with him based on their view of him as an ugly and deaf hunchback. In today’s society, discrimination similar to the one experienced by Quasimodo is common. For entertainment purposes, many circuses have, within their ranks, either people with stunted growth or people whose bodily formation is unusual and thus such people are deemed a source of entertainment. One of the worst genocides in the history of humanity was the Holocaust.

One of the aims of Nazi Germany was to eliminate and kill all the Jews in Europe; however, the Nazis also wanted to create a perfect society that was free of persons with disabilities and therefore, the very discrimination that Quasimodo experiences in the film can lead to horrors such as the Holocaust.

The Nazis rounded up all persons with disability (and interestingly, the gypsies too) and sent them to concentration camps where they would be killed. Gallagher states that, doctors in the Nazi government “systematically killed their severely disabled patients” (401).

Many beggars in the major cities and towns of the world have one form of disability and this attests to the fact that they are recipients of discrimination based on their disability. Due to this discrimination by society, many of the people with disabilities end up occupying low paying jobs or worse still find themselves with no jobs at all – leading to their economic marginalization.

In the film “Hunchback of Notre Dame” Esmeralda, played by Maureen O’Hara, comes out as the ultimate feminine beauty. Young and innocent, she dazzles men with her charm and near perfect peach. Inevitably, she attracts a host of admirers in nearly all the men in the film.

To begin with, Esmeralda obsesses Claude Frollo, the judge who has the Kings ear. Frollo lusts after Esmeralda, a woman young enough to be his own daughter. His obsession with Esmeralda leads him to commit several crimes that in the end prove self-destructive as he dies by Quasimodo.

Although Frollo is kind enough to adopt an abandoned Quasimodo as a baby, he lets all the good deeds that he has done in his lifetime become clouded by his lust for Esmeralda. As Quasimodo’s adoptive father, he ruins his relationship with Quasimodo in his lascivious pursuit of Esmeralda. When Esmeralda spurns his advances, he willingly frames her for the crime of the attempted murder of Phoebus, his rival for Esmeralda’s love whom he stabs in a fit of jealousy.

Therefore, as an innocent victim of sexism, Esmeralda gets the death sentence yet the men in her life, who only desire to bed her, do not intervene; for instance, Frollo, watches as Esmeralda is about to be hanged and does nothing, not even shedding crocodile tears. However, in the film Esmeralda is saved before she is hanged.

Similarly, Phoebus wants to take advantage of Esmeralda by having sexual intercourse with her. Phoebus disregards the emotional well-being of Esmeralda, a woman he intends to use to satisfy his sexual desires, since he would easily move on and marry his fiancee meanwhile leaving a devastated Esmeralda, who has genuine love for him, behind. Both Frollo and Phoebus seem to view women as simply objects for satisfying one’s sexual desire.

In conclusion, even as a film adaptation of a story from the Nineteenth Century, the film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” analyses classism, ableism, and sexism as forms of discrimination prevalent even in today’s society.

Works Cited

Gallagher, Gregory. “`Slapping up spastics’: The persistence of social attitudes toward people with disabilities.” Issues in Law & Medicine 10.4 (1995): 401-05.

Tonkin, Boyd. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” New Statesman 125.429 (1996): 39-41.

Whittington-Walsh, Fiona. “From Freaks to Savants: disability and hegemony from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) to Sling Blade (1997).” Disability & Society 17.6 (2002): 695-707.


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