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Victor Hugo Portrayed Notre Dame as the Ultimate Enabling Space

Prior to Notre-Dame’s devastating fire, the Sage guide to European travel gave the cathedral three stars for accessibility. Not bad for an 800-year old building. It has audio guides, nearby car drop-off, and it is close to wheelchair-accessible hotels. It loses a star for a 2-inch step at its least-inaccessible entrance, for the three steps to the ambulatory, and for the lack of an “elevator to visit the bell towers,” which require climbing those famous 387 steps.

But access is not the only way to think about the relationship between bodies and architectural spaces; building design need not be simply a matter of providing it. As Jos Boys writes in Doing Disability Differently (2014), readdressing architecture and disability involves nothing less than rethinking how we talk about the inhabitation of all designed spaces. Societies privilege certain abilities over others. Sometimes it is not until we are offered a chance to reimagine a space that a creative moment of inclusion can occur. Rebuilding Notre-Dame is such a moment.

Victor Hugo knew that architecture is an expression of a culture—a language, even—and he portrayed Notre-Dame as a enabling space. As a specialist in disability studies and 19th century literature at the University of Notre Dame, I have often taught Notre-Dame de Paris (1831). Quasimodo is one of the most widely recognizable disabled characters, and the Notre-Dame name is a helpful boost with my students. With Hugo’s novel currently racing up the Amazon charts, and many of us reading or rereading it, it is worth reflecting on what the novel says about the interrelationships between disabled bodies and the built environment.

The affinity between Quasimodo and Notre-Dame is important. The gargoyles are his brothers; he talks to the bells. The cathedral is a part of his body: when outside it, he limps; when inside it, he scales the bell towers and shoots through the medieval roof space.


The close association of the building with the story of Esmeralda and Quasimodo, a variation on Beauty and the Beast, is an aspect of the novel that makes it so enduring. The affinity between Quasimodo and Notre-Dame is important. The gargoyles are his brothers; he talks to the bells. The cathedral is a part of his body: when outside it, he limps; when inside it, he scales the bell towers and shoots through the medieval roof space. A space that has now sadly gone.

“You could almost say that he had taken its shape, as the snail takes the shape of its shell,” Hugo writes. “Between the old church and him there was an instinctive sympathy so profound and magnetic, and material affinities so numerous, that he somehow adhered to it like the tortoise to his shell. The rugged cathedral was his carapace.”

Hugo’s love of intellectual complexity makes this a novel in which architecture represents freedom, revolution, intellectual brilliance, paradox, and inclusion. He gives architectural spaces an expressive voice for people with disabilities. The cathedral bells enable Quasimodo to talk to the whole city. The bells that make him deaf “are the only speech he could still hear, the only sound which disturbed his universal silence.” They are also his voice—a voice that is heard throughout Paris, and a voice that gives him a kind of omnipresence. He is nimble around the building. He climbs it. He tames it. It is “a docile and obedient creature under his hand.” Notre-Dame de Paris is unusual in that it places the disabled body at the heart of the discussion about what buildings communicate to us.

Hugo’s account of architectural spaces is conceptual as well as character-driven. He pauses the action to deliver an essay on architectural theory. Notre-Dame is, for Hugo, a statement in an architectural language, a language that has evolved from the earliest alphabet of Celtic stones, through granite syllables, to the all-encompassing cathedral. Encyclopedia-like, it contains diverse elements in a unified whole. Notre-Dame is a repository of many evolving architectural styles, a transitional building expressing a changing culture. It is a symbol “drifting” in time. A two-headed sphinx. An enigma.

Long before the concept of universal design, Hugo imagines an enabling building that can be symbolic and expressive of disability, participating in disabled identities harmoniously. As we rebuild this treasure, let us hope that we can create access to new spaces and realize Hugo’s vision of the harmonious unities of body and building.

Featured image via Jade A. from Pexels.

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