In the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame by French author Victor Hugo, Esmeralda is sentenced to death for killing Captain Phoebus. But when you continue reading the novel you'll find out Phoebus is still alive.

At some point even King Louis XI ordered his soldiers (including Phoebus) to attack the cathedral, end the riot, and hang Esmeralda!

My question: Why didn't the King or any other capable person cancel Esmeralda's death sentence while they knew Phoebus is not dead at all?

2 Answers 2


The judicial process that Hugo describes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not really concerned with finding the truth, or meting out justice. It is more to do with creating the impression of justice, and then offering up a suitable victim for the entertainment of the mob. This is seen clearly in the case of Quasimodo's trial, for example. Since Quasimodo was deaf he could not hear the questions put to him, and since the auditor, Barbedienne was also deaf, he could not hear the replies anyway.

Esmerelda was found unconscious, next to the body of the stabbed captain and was arrested along with her pet goat on the grounds of having "murdered and stabbed, in concert with the powers of darkness, by the aid of charms and underhand practices, a captain of the king’s arches of the watch, Phœbus de Châteaupers" (from Isabel Hapgood's translation). The use of the term "murdered" does indeed seem strange here. As the OP noted, Phœbus was not killed, and this fact was known to the court at the time:

“Oh! for mercy’s sake, tell me if he is alive!” she [Esmeralda] repeated, clasping her beautiful emaciated hands...

“Well!” said the king’s advocate roughly, “he is dying (il se meurt). Are you satisfied?”

The original French makes more sense. The charge is given as "meurtri et poignardé", or "injured and stabbed". So the fault would seem to lie with the translation, in particular rendering "meutri" as "murdered". Indeed, some summaries, such as wikipedia, replace "murder" with the more sensible "attempted murder".

But in fact the actual charge does not matter all that much. Esmeralda is taken from the court and tortured, and confesses to a long litany of sins, including practising sorcery, consorting with the Devil, and finally, almost as an afterthought, "murdered and assassinated" (meurtri et assassiné) Captain Phoebus. Here again "meurtri" is rendered as "murdered" in the translation. We do now have "assassiné" in the charge, which indeed would imply that Phoebus is dead. But possibly this is just the interrogators (or possibly the author) mis-speaking, since neither before nor after this charge is Phoebus stated to be dead or assassinated.

Having been found guilty by the court, and having signed a confession, there would be no call for anyone to reverse the judgement on Esmeralda. Especially for such an unimportant figure as the young Gypsy girl.

  • So are you saying that the interrogators who knew they can't hang Esmeralda for murder tried to have her confess to other great sins in order to be able to execute her? Commented May 29, 2023 at 22:32
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    Yes, they did not really care what she confessed to, so long as it was sufficient to hang her. Commented May 29, 2023 at 22:46
  • It seems a little too unreal. I don't think the judicial system of France was that tyrant at that time to try to find a sufficient reason to hang a little girl. Sounds Victor Hugo hated his country's past to the extend he has always tried to demonize it so much. Commented May 29, 2023 at 23:25
  • @Stack exchange This article says that Esmeralda is about 16 years old. Thus she is almost an adult - the age of legal majority for French kings, at least, was set at 14. And most 16-year-old girls should be a large as women of 18 or 21, the modern ages of adulthood. So that makes Esmeralda a big girl, not a medium girl or a little girl Try to use more precise terms in the future.. Commented May 30, 2023 at 5:01
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    @SnackExchange Victor Hugo was a fierce opponent of the death penalty, and so takes every opportunity to ridicule it (and the corrupt judicial system) Commented May 30, 2023 at 18:59

I think I have reached a convincing answer to my question.

Esmeralda was sentenced to death because she had falsely confessed to murder and witchcraft.

So even if she were going to be acquitted for murder she still would be executed for the second crime. (The sentence of witchcraft was still death)

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