This essay argues that Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris rescues Gothic buildings that still existed in France from destruction by transforming them into national symbols. Through his novel, he transforms the people who were their greatest threat — from a restive mob into a nation — by inserting them and their ancestors into the narrative of French history.
Hugo saw destruction of castles and churches in France in the wake of the Revolution and became convinced that these first and easiest targets of political unrest were also irreplaceable witnesses to important events right up to his own uneasy present. Their disappearance meant the loss of part of the historical record, gaps in collective memory, and the loss of a corresponding part of the national identity. The 1830s, when Notre Dame de Paris was published, political debate turned to how to end the cycle of revolution and restoration in which the French seemed locked. What sort of government was France to have? How was French society to be organised? By whom were such decisions to be made? Hugo’s novel answers these questions by turning the attention of a wide readership to a distant, non-controversial past in order to construct an image of France and its people that everyone could endorse, one that combines the best qualities of all people, regardless of faction or ideology.
United and possessing political will and real power to effect change, they are the French nation centuries before the idea of nation. The writing and publication of this novel, then, is an act of architectural restoration, recovery of a lost world, and creation of national myth rooted in the “Gothic” past—a literary restoration of the buildings of the ancien régime, even as his it underscores the impossibility and undesirability of the restoration of Bourbon absolutism. Hugo showed post-Revolutionary France how to make sense of their recent past as periodically recurring upheaval in modern guise, not as catastrophe to be explained away or denied. The publication of his novel marks a novelist’s insertion of himself into what his contemporaries often saw as an essentially political debate.
Hugo presents French identity as a collective project driven by people’s intellectual engagement with their culture and with a past they have never really considered their own. By including a mass readership in the process of defining French identity, Hugo’s novel could extend Revolution into the realm of civil discourse — and, perhaps, remove it from the streets.