Finding Beauty in the Beast
By Hannah Price
There are many things to love about the powerful redemptive messages in the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dam. The story is a classic tale with a truly evil villain, beautiful heroine and hero with a heart of gold. There are chases, escapes, a bit of romance, musical numbers, a sweeping visual spectacle of the city, and breaks of hilarity in between the drama. However, it is easy to get lost in the fiery excitement of this story and forget what truly makes it a unique piece in the Disney classic film canon.
Usually the stories follow a handsome hero or beautiful heroine as they save the day, but the hero and titular character of The Hunchback of Notre Dam is in fact, a hunchback. He is not physically attractive or roguishly charming, full of wit, fun and laughter like so many Disney heroes before him. But despite this, Quasimodo is still a hero, and it is beautiful to witness. His true beauty is found within and it shines outwardly through his acts of courage, perseverance, forgiveness, sincerity, sacrificial love, and earnest desire to help others. And even though Quasimodo isn’t a traditional hero, he still manages to act like one, saving the damsel in distress, vanquishing the villain, rallying the townsfolk to a good cause and ultimately saving the day.
The first song in the film asks “who is the monster and who is the man?” in regards to Judge Claude Frollo and Quasimodo, making mention to Quasimodo’s name meaning “half-formed,” and asking if appearances are really what they seem. The audience quickly comes to find out that there is no monster to be found in Quasimodo; rather the monster is to be found in the cruel and merciless Frollo. This leads me to one of my favorite aspects of Quasimodo’s character. Even with the toughest of guardians and teachers in Frollo, Quasimodo still manages to grow into a kind and merciful human being. Frollo constantly reminds Quasimodo throughout his life of his lowly and unattractive state (“you are deformed and you are ugly”) to humble and “tame” him. Yet Quasimodo’s spirit never breaks and he never gives up hope of someday going out into the world and finding welcoming arms. True, his first experience with the people of Notre Dam is heartbreaking and nearly puts him off leaving the Notre Dam bell tower ever again, but the kindred spirits he finds in the gypsy Esmeralda (a fellow outcast), and later the soldier Phoebus, give him the push he needs to give the outside world another chance.
My other favorite aspect of Quasimodo’s character is the one that helps me identify with him the most. He has a capacity for seeing the beauty in things that no one else in the story does. Living alone above the city in the drafty old cathedral bell tower might make a cynic out of anyone, but not Quasimodo. He names each bell and knows their individualities by heart, cares for the birds who nest in the gargoyles, and spends his quiet hours carving the likeness of the city folk he observes in tiny statues. The stark contrast between Quasimodo’s life and that of the townsfolk below him, as well as the stark contrast in physical appearance helps him to truly appreciate the beauty in the ordinary. The life of the baker, blacksmith or tailor might seem mundane or common to them, but to Quasimodo it is a life full of potential and prospect. “Out there among the millers and the weavers and their wives, through the roofs and gables I can see them. Every day they shout and scold and go about their lives, heedless of the gift it is tobe them. If I was in their skin, I'd treasure every instant,” Quasimodo says, looking down upon the people who take so much for granted.
Truth be told, we are like the millers and weavers of Quasimodo’s world. Do we treasure the gift of life itself, the freedom we have to speak our minds, the ability to love and be loved, to move about freely in the world and pursue our dreams? What if we became more like Quasimodo, aware of the gift it is to have what we have, to love whom we love, to experience the blessings we do? I wonder if we could treasure every instant then and realize the gift it is to be who God made us.