Notre-Dame is a book written in praise of, and to some extent in imitation of, the Gothic style of architecture. This was a style that had long been under a cloud in France, from which it took Romanticism to save it. Hugo was not the first French writer to campaign in favour of the Gothic; Charles Nodier and Madame de Staël were already its champions. nevertheless, even by late adolescence, he was aware of the injustice and partiality of current architectural preferences, which could accept the Romanesque style that had preceded the Gothic and extol the inert Classicism that finally succeeded it, while having only contempt for what it saw as the disorder and uncouthness of the Gothic itself.
Notre-Dame is thus meant in part as a redemption of an architecture in eclipse. Hugo redeems it not simply with his applause and the attention he pays to its visible merits, but also by associating it with the Romantic spirit of the age, with the congenial movement of the contemporary mind towards a greater flexibility of thought. The Gothic style, for Hugo, is one of populism, aspiration and caprice. He compares it, whenever practicable, with the style that came before it in north-western Europe, the Romanesque. The Romanesque, whose defining characteristic is the rounded arch, he judges to have been a hierarchical and dogmatic style, the imposition of a superior caste on an immobile society. The Gothic, in which the rounded arch has been replaced by the pointed arch or ogee, is, on the contrary, a freer style, encouraging licence and dissent from authority.
It is also an architecture of the vertical rather than the horizontal axis. Hugo, in the words of Nodier, was early seized by ‘the demon ogee’ and all through Notre-Dame he lays stress on the pointed, upward aspects of Gothic architecture – its spires, steeples, staircases and lancets – as well as on the altitude of the cathedral itself. This pervasive feature of the Gothic consorts perfectly with Hugo’s humanist philosophy, because he saw humanity as engaged on a long but inevitably triumphant ascent from ignorance and crime to a harmonious state of grace on earth. Hugo cherishes the sky-scraping side of Gothic because it represents the opening of men’s minds to hopes denied them by the autocracy he reads into the Romanesque, and the cathedral of Notre-Dame, begun in a Romanesque age and finished in a Gothic one, is presented, very reasonably, as a monument of the transition from one style to the other and thus, more important, of the transition from one outlook to the other. It is an impoverishment of the novel to suppose that Hugo’s interest in architecture was merely that of a connoisseur or antiquarian; one should bear in mind that he interprets architecture as a sign of a much larger ideological shift.
There is something else besides in the Gothic which he esteems and on which he capitalises, and that is the part it allows to the grotesque, as in the gargoyles on the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Hugo felt much solidarity with an art form which realised a part of his own Romantic programme by acknowledging that reality was compounded of both the beautiful and the ugly and had given the ugly at least a token part to play in a harmonious whole. This was to enlarge the art and at the same time to popularise it, for Hugo is clearly right to maintain that the inclusion of such motifs is a blow against the elitism of classical styles.