Buildings often employ visual and spatial rhetorics that both persuade us of their function and determine personal functionality. Architectural language is a defining feature of disability in Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) and a universally accessible language. In emphasizing the synecdochic relationship between gothic buildings and the disabled body, Hugo demonstrates that he is not only a pioneer in urban and architectural semantics, but that he also understands the complex symbolic relationship between architecture and the disabled body. Defining beauty as atypicality, through the gothic aesthetic, Hugo presents Notre Dame Cathedral as a uniquely drifting symbol (with its multiple meanings, its transitional status and its cultural miscegenation) with a revelatory function: it expresses disability as normative.

Buildings often work in ways that are rhetorical. Through our experiences of accessibility they can persuade us that we are welcome or unwelcome; through their visual style they can create conflict with or signal acceptance of aesthetic conventions and the cultures of other nations; they can express the vernacular or promote rules of decorum, reinforce class stratification, or define the spirit of an age. Although architectural language is separate from words, it is, nonetheless, an important expression of cultural identity and cultural exchange. Its visual rhetoric is crafted with purpose, and it invites reaction. Yet the visual dimensions of rhetoric have only recently become an important part of communication-related disciplines. Broadly defined as "those symbolic actions enacted primarily through visual means, made meaningful through culturally derived ways of looking and seeing and endeavoring to influence diverse publics" (Olson et al. 3), visual rhetoric is a significant part of architectural language, but it is by no means the fullest way to reflect the interaction between people and buildings. Spatial rhetoric is also important: the ways in which people engage physically with the built environment can define a society's attitude to a disability, and can even define disability itself. Just as "studying visual rhetoric trains us to discriminate the commercial from the civic, the propagandist from the democratic, and the sentimental from the memorable" (Olson et al. 4), so spatial rhetoric can determine the extent and purpose of personal functionality in ways that explain the value system of a culture and its modes of resistance.

People and environments interact in ways that are political. Occupying space in particular ways—for example, the political challenge of the "sit in" form of protest, popular in the 1960s—is rhetorically persuasive because, although the impact of localized intrusion may be small, it is part of a spatial language of protest. Activists attempt to reclaim power, not through oratory, but through illegitimately occupying space. Metonymically, the "sit in" signals, visually and spatially, the rhetoric of a countercultural take-over of hegemonic social space. That is not to say that there are not fundamental differences between linguistic and architectural forms. Architecture cannot have the clarity and nuance of a verbal language, but it is nevertheless a mode of communication capable of varying degrees of precision. The linguistic analogy, nonetheless, persists. For Donald Preziozi, architecture is a "matrix of visual sign systems at the core of human sociocultural behavior" (Preziozi 12). Nevertheless, the fundamental problem with discussing urban or architectural semantics, as Roland Barthes asserts, is "how to pass from metaphor to analysis" (Barthes 168). Barthes is correct; there is more assertion that architecture is a language than evidence presented to convince us that buildings and the built environment function linguistically.1

Debates in Disability Studies about the relationship between the disabled body and constructed space have taken place in the context of discussions about access,2 disability simulations,3 identity politics,4 and of the social model of disability.5 Much of this discussion has promoted the idea that social spaces are produced by ideological circumstances that reflect social structures and prejudices, and that these spaces define the normative and non-normative body. As Kathleen Kirby acknowledges, belonging to particular social identities may appear to be part of a "conceptual space," in that these identities depend on some initial conceptualization, but these identities nevertheless "operate materially, structuring physical spaces (think of the slave quarters and the master's house…)" (13). More accurately, these identities participate in the structuring of physical spaces. While these discussions do not often conceptualize the politics of space in terms of a language, some Disability Studies scholars hint at this. Petra Kuppers, for instance, examines "the rhetorical use of the wheelchair" in film, demonstrating "how wheelchairs become icons and communicative symbols in nondisabled performances" (81). Kuppers is more concerned with the meaning of the wheelchair motif than with its relationship to constructed space, but her article is one of the few in which the language of architecture is evoked.6

Architectural expression as a defining aspect of disability has not been part of the discussion of architectural semantics. Umberto Eco, for example, identifies the staircase as "sign vehicle whose denoted meaning is the function it makes possible" (Eco 176). He considers his own role as a receiver of the communication that a staircase indicates the "possibility of going up" by virtue of its physical arrangement (176). But the cultural connotations of the disabling staircase do not interest him: the staircase does not seem to define him as walker or observer; it merely offers him a choice. The disabled body interrupts this communication: for someone with a mobility impairment, the staircase does not indicate the possibility of going up or down; it indicates quite the reverse. Eco's staircase communicates to him, as an able-bodied person, that he has a choice about whether to go up or down; he is less cognizant that society presents him with that choice and that it may be a choice that disables others.

In what follows, I will argue that in Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) Victor Hugo presents architecture as a language that exhibits both visual and spatial rhetoric. For him, architecture is a complex and shifting symbolic system. As Roland Barthes points out, Hugo is a pioneer in urban and architectural semantics, whose concern in Notre-Dame de Paris is "the rivalry between two modes of writing, writing in stone [i.e. architecture] and writing on paper" (Barthes 167). I wish to push this further and argue that Notre-Dame de Paris places the disabled body at the heart of the discussion about what buildings communicate. Like the semioticians of architecture, Hugo is engaged in a broader conversation about the way in which architecture is a language of its own: buildings are a mode of speaking for their cultures and creators, and for their users. But it is Hugo's commentary on the complex symbolic relationship between architecture and disability as a category or identity that sets his novel apart.

I begin in the first section by discussing Hugo's definition of and use of the concept of architectural language, and his complication of this use through the suggestions (1) that architecture can be an unstable, "drifting," or enigmatic language, and (2) that architecture is in competition with the printed book. In the second section I show first that Hugo sees the cathedral of Notre Dame as a building that is in some sense about the disabled body, and secondly that Hugo allows architectural environments to enable people with disabilities to reveal their disabilities without placing the environment in an antagonistic relationship with the disabled body.

"Ce symbolisme flottant": The Drifting Symbolism of Architectural Language

Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris, which is set in 1482, a few years after Gutenberg invented the printing press (1439), defines architecture as a language that has evolved in complexity from the earliest alphabet of Celtic stones to the creation of a grammar of building where "On supposera la pierre à la pierre" (175) ("stone was laid upon stone" [193]) and structures like "syllables de granite" ("granite syllables") became "joined" into a language (175 [193]). Hugo speaks directly of the ways in which buildings are bearers of meaning. This is referenced in the dramatization of the novel's action as much as it is present in the novel's more digressive moments in which the narrator offers his views on architecture. For example, as Suzanne Nash notes, "nearly every critical event" in the novel takes place in front of the great doors to the cathedral with their puzzling depictions of "stories of mercy and salvation" (129); "[Claude] Frollo [the Archdeacon of Paris] is constantly examining them in an effort to decipher their meaning" (Nash 129); and they are eventually attacked by the mob. For Nash, the indecipherability of the doors signals "the full measure of the loss of sacred value" (129), and the cathedral is a "poeticized symbolic space" that is "presented as a gaping tomb-like void, empty of the faithful" (Nash 128). Indeed, architectural space does more than operate as a scenic backdrop to the action; it defines the action.

Even in the opening scene of Notre-Dame de Paris, which takes place in Paris's Great Hall, Hugo takes care to demonstrate the rhetorical effect of architectural space. At one end of the hall, on a marble table, Pierre Gringoire's mystery play written in honor of the royal marriage negotiation is staged, and above it, in the center of the wall opposite the great door, is the cardinal's high-mounted gilded tribune.7 The elevation and announcement of the state visitors and the clergy signifies their importance, and the gold brocade that surrounds them signifies their dignity: they enter through the door leading from a gilded chamber. This contrasts with the more rudimentary entrance of the actors on the marble stage using a visible ladder, the entrance of the anonymous crowd, which pours into the building like water, and that of the subversive characters who break the windows to peer through them. Hugo stages the power hierarchy through the spatial relationships in the building. The saturnalian force of the crowd is expressed at floor level, its members calling out bathetic comments from below. The announcement and entrance of the cardinal onto the tribune above them coincides with a player saying the line, "Onc ne vis dans les bois bête plus triomphante" (32) ("You never saw a more triumphant beast in all the woods" [37]), and creates, through the proximity of the two spaces, an ironic challenge to the proud cardinal's authority. The disruption this causes in the crowd suspends the play as all eyes turn away from the stage and towards the cardinal: "Chacun voulait le mieux voir. C'était à qui mettrait sa tête sur les épaules de son voisin" (34) ("Everybody wanted a better view of him. Each one strained to crane his head over his neighbour's shoulder" [40]). Movement around buildings and the design of buildings is more than mere scenery.8

The spatial meanings of this scene are made a further part of the action when Clopin Trouillefou begins his challenging behavior by scaling the tribune reserved for the cardinal's party, and when the people in the crowd break the window of the chapel. The window in which a face-pulling contest9 takes place is opposite the marble stage, making the contest—which determines the election of the pope of fools—part of a visual antithesis between high and low art.10 The beggar's proximity to the cardinal signals the man's insolence through his spatial elevation, and indicates, moreover, Jacques Coppenole's vulgarity for deigning to talk to the beggar from the tribune. Architectural language plays a prominent role in articulating antithetical, class-based relationships, in signaling the distinction between high and low, and in illustrating the power of people to question their relationships to the spaces that have been laid out for them.

Although he is careful to emphasize a linear narrative of architectural language development——it is on a journey to complexity——Hugo nevertheless describes architectural language as a confusion of voices. Architecture's expressive capacity expands into a cathedral that is able to contain what Hugo calls "symbolisme flottant" (176) ("drifting symbolism" [194]) and is thus able to convey intellectual complexity.11 Hugo draws attention to the symbolic contradictions of architecture—the churches with "chapiteaux tricotés de moines et de nonnes honteusement accouplés" (179) ("capitals interwoven with monks and nuns shamelessly coupling" [196])—and the multiplicity of its meaning: "Quelquefois un portail, une façade, une église tout entière présent un sens symbolique absolument étranger au culte" (179) ("Sometimes a doorway, a façade, a whole church offers a symbolic meaning absolutely alien to worship" [197]). The cathedral is as complex as the Encyclopédie and the Moniteur (188 [206]), because its meaning rests on a multiplicity of voices—like those found in an encyclopedia and a newspaper—that are held in unity but are still expressive of variety. The cathedral's iconic status is located in its effective mass-communication in a pre-print culture. Its historical force is visual and spatial, but its epistemological complexity is marked out not by its precision in communication, but by its enigmatic and shifting meanings. The cathedral is a unified architectural symbol akin to a hieroglyph: "tout est fondu, combiné, amalgamé dans Notre-Dame" (112) ("everything is merged, combined, amalgamated in Notre-Dame" [125]); it is a unity of multiplicity: the parts of the cathedral "se développent à l'oeil, en foule et sans trouble, avec leurs innombrables détails de statuaire, de scuplture et de ciselure […]; vaste symphonie en pierre" (107) ("all unfold before one's eye, multitudinous and unconfused with their innumerable details of statuary, sculpture, and carvings […]; a vast symphony in stone" [119-220]).

Two contradictory symbols for the cathedral's enigmatic symbolism stand out in the novel. Drawing attention to its architecturally hybrid style, Hugo describes the cathedral as a "chimère (chimera)," and later likens it to Babel (113 [124])—its architectural confusions become linguistic or representational confusions. He also calls the building "un sphinx à deux têtes" (173) ("two-headed sphinx" [190]). The latter is a mysteriously silent symbol that symbolizes inscrutability of the riddle put before Oedipus, a figure associated with disability both because of his blindness and because of his name ("swollen footed"). The sphinx symbol invokes enigma through the riddle of the ages of man (where disability is a normal part of the beginning and end of the life cycle), through Oedipus, and through its extraordinary two-headed body (the bell towers of Notre Dame). Both symbols indicate, succinctly, the close connections that the novel makes between disability, man-made constructions, and language. Like the cathedral itself, the sphinx and Babel represent the unknowable.

Ironically, Hugo best describes what he takes to be the characteristics of the Tower of Babel in discussing not architecture but the other example of Babel: the printed word. Babel is a hieroglyph for communication disorder. The printed word "grandit et s'amoncelle en spirales sans fin; là aussi il y a confusion des langues" (188) ("grows and rises in endless spirals; there too is a medley of tongues" [206]). But the spatial metaphor fits Notre Dame exactly: both Babel and Notre Dame represent an uncontrolled architectural space that signifies linguistic disorder. Their confusions are not spatially static: they are characterized by their excessive movement. The spatial rhetoric emphasizes the disorientation that the buildings stand for. In referring to Notre Dame metaphorically as Babel, Hugo highlights the cathedral's disordered nature and the complexities of voicing that come through the building.12

Babel returns as a symbol for linguistic disorder in Claude Frollo's psychotic breakdown, where the issue of reading the visual rhetoric of buildings becomes more an issue of perception.13 In the liminal half-light of evening, Frollo reflects on his irresolvable obsession with Esmeralda while gazing at the Strasbourg steeple in the center of Paris. His perception of the scene changes spatially, such that "c'était Claude qui était debout et l'obélisque qui était couché" (356) ("it was Dom Claude who was upright and the obelisk which was recumbent" [384]); the steeple grows in height, becoming six miles high, turning into "quelque chose d'inouï, de gigantesque, d'incommensurable, un édifice comme nul oeil humain n'en a vu, une tour de Babel" (356) ("something incredible, gigantic, immeasurable, a structure such as had been seen by no human eye, a Tower of Babel" [384]). Frollo's "state of hallucination" signals a change in his perception of architectural language.14 His psychological crisis becomes so acute that the steeple becomes "le clocher d'enfer" (356) ("the steeple of hell" [384]), its "lights" become the furnaces, and he hears "râles (death-rattles)" (356 [385]). Unable to get away from the sight and noise ("la vision était en lui" [356] ["the vision was within him" (385)]), the buildings and people become "un chaos d'objets indéterminés qui se fondaient par les bords les uns dans les autres" (356-357) ("a chaotic jumble of indeterminate objects merging at the edges into one another" [385]). When he returns to Notre Dame, it seems to Frollo that the building is alive, "chaque grosse colonne devenait une patte énorme qui battait le sol de sa large spatule de pierre" (359) ("every massive column had become an enormous foot striking the ground with its broad stone spatula" [388]), and has turned into an "éléphant prodigieux" (359) (a "prodigious elephant" [388]). Frollo's own head becomes, at the end of this scene, "une des cheminées de l'enfer" (360) ("one of the chimneys of hell" [388]).

Hugo suggests that architecture—as expressive of human thought—is in competition with the printed book, and is keen to draw out the book-building analogies in order to demonstrate how these two art forms are able to compete. Print is in competition with architecture, because both the building and the book are complex modes of expression. This antagonism between the two art forms signals their closeness in form. Hugo's narrator looks back to a time when "quiconque naissait poète se faisait architecte" (179) ("anyone who was born a poet became an architect" [197]) and "Iliades prenaient la forme de cathédrales" (180) ("Iliads took the form of cathedrals" [197]). When asked what he is reading, Frollo, though he has Peter Lombard's book open in front of him, opens a window and points to the cathedral of Notre Dame.

L'archidiacre considéra quelque temps en silence le gigantesque édifice, puis étendant avec un soupir sa main droite vers le livre imprimé qui était ouvert sur sa table et sa main gauche vers Notre-Dame, et promenant un triste regard du livre à l'église: «Hélas! dit-il, ceci tuera cela» (173) (The archdeacon silently contemplated the gigantic building for a while, then sighed as he stretched out his right hand towards the printed book lying open on his table and his left hand towards Notre-Dame, and looked sadly from the book to the church. "Alas! he said, this will kill that" [190]).

Frollo elaborates on his observation on the death of the building, suggesting that the threat of print is similar to an infected tooth killing a "whole body"15: "une dent triomphe d'une masse" (173 [190]). The response of Jacques Coictier, physician to Louis XI and fellow alchemist, is "«Il est fou»" (173; italics in original) ("'He's mad'" [190]). Of course, read literally, the book does not appear to be able to bring down a stone building, but Frollo means this symbolically. His idea that the life-threatening tooth can kill hints that small things can kill the larger things of which they are a part; but it also draws attention to the prominence and importance of synecdochic relationships in the novel. The cathedral stands for the whole Church, and Lombard's book stands for printing in general: "La presse tuera l'église" (174) ("the printing press will kill the Church" [192]). The cathedral also stands for the language of architecture (in that it is an expression in that language), and the book stands for written language more broadly.16

Architectural Rhetoric and the Disabled Body

Architecture is not merely a language that expresses the ambiguous complexities of human thought. For Hugo, buildings are about bodies and are bodies.17 The interchangeability of the building and body is seen clearly in his description of Shakespeare as a cathedral and of Byron as a mosque (188 [206]). Notre Dame, however, is more specifically a disabled body. It exhibits a gothic magnificence and grotesqueness in its "Mutilations, amputations, dislocations de la membure" (110) ("Mutilations, amputations, [and the] dislocations of its limbs" [123]). Even as Hugo introduces the idea of the floating or drifting symbol, he evokes the disabled body: architecture is a "géante à mille têtes et à mille bras" (176) ("a giant with countless heads and arms" [194]). The multiplicities of the organs associated with doing (the hands) and the organs of control and perception (the head) become, through their increase, paradoxically, a symbol of disability as excess. For Hugo not only does the disabled body symbolize the cathedral but also the cathedral symbolizes the disabled body. Both are able to contain the contradictions that occur in the complexities of human thought. Hugo expands the analogy to other forms of architecture as well. The domes of the churches of Louis XIII are like a "bosse (hump)" (185 [203]); rococo architecture possesses "les verrues et … les fungus" ("warts and … tumours"), and is "caduque, édentée et coquette" (185) ("a toothless, decaying, and still coquettish hag" [203]); and the evolution of French architectural style is a "mal [qui] a crû en progression géométrique" (185) ("disease [that] has grown worse in geometrical progression" [203]), rendering the art form just "la peau sur les os" (185) ("skin and bones" [203]). Hugo's architectural spaces articulate a floating—mobile—signification, often closely aligning body, building, and voice in ways that emphasize the multiplicity of meanings. But despite his claims about its semantic ambiguity, Hugo presents the cathedral as fundamentally about—as meaning—the disabled body.

Hugo makes an analogy between disability and the language of architecture primarily through identifying the cathedral's initial construction as an example of the gothic grotesque, and secondarily through what he sees as the effect on the building of the violence of fashion, restoration, revolution, and time. "Les modes ont fait plus de mal que les révolutions" (109) ("Fashions have done more harm than revolutions" [122]), in that "elles ont tranché dans le vif" ("they cut into the living flesh") of Medieval art, and "elles ont coupé, taillé, désorganisé, tué l'édifice, dans la forme comme dans le symbole" (109) "they have hewn, hacked, dislocated, killed the building, in its form as in its symbolism" [122]).18 The cathedral's disabled body has been hidden with prostheses and cosmetics that enable it to "pass" in different ages: "Elles ont effrontément ajusté, de par le bon goût, sur les blessures de l'architecture gothique, leurs misérables colifichets d'un jour, leurs rubans de marbre, leurs pompons de métal" (109) ("Brazenly, in the name of 'good taste,' they stuck over the wounds of Gothic architecture their wretched baubles of a day, their marble ribbons, their metal pompoms" [122]). There is implied, in the more medicalized presentation of the vulnerable body, an articulation of the narrator's role as the preserver of the original cathedral. The 1830s narrator imagines away the dislocation of the modern world in order to present the medieval past as intact: "Nous venons d'essayer de réparer pour le lecteur cette admirable église de Notre-Dame de Paris" (114) ("We have just tried to repair for the reader the admirable church of Notre-Dame de Paris" [128]). The imaginative repair is, paradoxically, not an attempt to overcome the grotesquerie of the gothic, but to return the gothic aesthetic to its preeminence in the city. Gothic architecture, Hugo argues, redefines the grotesque as beauty through its atypicality: "Notre-Dame de Paris n'est point du reste ce qu'on peut appeler un monument complet, défini, classé" (110) ("Notre-Dame de Paris is not […] what can be called a complete, definite, classifiable monument" [123]).

As a drifting symbol, the cathedral signals its complexity as "un édifice de la transition" (111) ("a transitional building" [124]), and as an icon of cultural miscegenation: "Notre-Dame de Paris n'est pas de pure race romaine […] ni de pure race arabe" (111) ("Notre-Dame de Paris not of pure Roman stock […] nor of pure Arab stock" [124]).19 The disfigurement by fashion and politics, which has attempted to incorporate Notre Dame into the normative, stands in contrast to the beauty of the unaltered body of the cathedral in all its gothic magnificence. Architectural language represents a disabled aesthetic via the building's identity as a gothic construction and through its continued existence as a vulnerable atypical body.

For Hugo, then, architecture has an expressive function for people with intellectual and physical impairments that enables these impairments to be revealed, not as disabling, but as simply present. This revelation comes not in the manner of Umberto Eco's staircase: the disabled body is not confronted with exclusion in this way. Disability is spoken about in the form of architectural metaphors: for example in the description of the man with a "système compliqué de béquilles et de jambes de bois," which "lui donnait l'air d'un échafaudage de maçons en marche" (80) ("a complicated system of crutches and wooden legs," which "made him look like a builder's scaffolding on the move" [91]). This close connection is also articulated at the level of architectural aesthetics. Quasimodo, for example, exchanges "regards fraternels (fraternal looks)" with the gargoyles (373 [401]) on the walls, signaling his feeling of kinship with non-normative beauty. Furthermore, the sachette, a melancholic mother who has lost a child in infancy (who it is later revealed is Esmeralda) is symbolically linked to the cold and empty tower in which she chooses to live as a recluse. Her self-isolation, in "cette horrible cellule, sorte d'anneau intermédiare de la maison et de la tombe" (201) ("[this] horrible cell, a kind of intermediate link between a home and a tomb" [220]), articulates her profound grief. Being cut off from other people signals her self-imprisonment architecturally and spatially: "ce corps prisonnier dans ce cachot, et sous cette double enveloppe de chair et de granit le bourdonnement de cette âme en peine" (202) ("this body imprisoned in its dungeon, and beneath the double envelope of flesh and granite the droning of that soul in distress" [220]). The sachette has stone-like qualities (she is a "statue" [220 (239)]), and her head banging on the floor is "le bruit d'une pierre sur une pierre" [223] ["the sound of stone on stone" (242)]). The linguistic mixing of flesh and stone in the descriptions of her point to a rhetorical use of architectural metaphor in the novel.

This synecdochic relationship between the building and the body is quite different from the idea of a building as enabling or disabling. Buildings and bodies are closely allied, here, but more than this, the body is an expression of the building, and as such it is not an incongruous part of the building: it is part of the language of the building. The "half Gothic, half Romanesque" cultural hybrid of a tower in which the sachette lives determines her minimal interaction with the outside world. Its quiet interior contrasts with the noise of the "plus bruyante (busiest)" (200 [219]) public square in Paris, in which it is located. Built as a place of retreat for Madame Rolande, who mourned for her father's death on a crusade, cells like this express the piety of the ascetic life and, for the self-selected inmate, allow for interaction with the world on her own terms: "Maintes femmes étaient venues y pleurer, jusqu'à la mort, des parents, des amants, des fautes" (203) ("Many women had come there to weep, until they died, for parents, lovers, sins" [221).20

Hugo repeatedly insists on a synecdochic relationship between buildings and people with disabilities in the novel. This is seen most acutely in Quasimodo's relationship to Notre Dame. As its inhabitant, Quasimodo comes to "resemble" the building: "Il arriva […] à en faire partie intégrante. Ses angles saillants s'emboîtaient […] aux angles rentrants de l'édifice, et il en semblait, non seulement l'habitant, mais encore le contenu naturel" (148) ("He came […] to become an integral part of it. His protruding angles fitted […] the concave angles of the building, and he seemed to be not just its denizen but its natural contents" [164]). The cathedral is Quasimodo's "carapace" (149 [164]) in the sense that it is his home, but also in the sense that it is part of his body.21 Hugo is very aware that his narrator is speaking figuratively. He asks the reader to forgive the possible incongruity of a comparison between a man and a building, and he warns us "de ne pas prendre au pied de la lettre les figures que nous sommes obligé d'employer ici pour exprimer cet accouplement singulier, symétrique, immédiat, presque co-substantiel, d'un homme et d'un édifice" (149) ("not to take literally the metaphors that we are obliged to use here to express the peculiar, symmetrical, immediate, almost consubstantial conjunction of a man and a building" [164]), but nonetheless his point is reiterated: buildings are a part of the people to whom they belong.

Quasimodo's own tongue is "engourdie, maladroite, et comme une porte dont les gonds sonts rouillés" (150) ("stiff, clumsy, like a door with rusty hinges" [165]). He is able to use the voice of the cathedral as a prosthesis, and "faisait respirer l'immense édifice" (154) ("made the immense building breathe" [169]), and so to animate himself ("palpitant" [152] ["shaking with excitement" (168)]). Quasimodo's vocal emancipation culminates in a spatial universality. The novel stresses not his disablement by the bells, but the gain in power and significance he achieves through the bells. Quasimodo, through music, is everywhere at one time: "il se multipliait sur tous les points du monument" [154] ["multiplying himself to be at every point in the monument at once" (169)]). His metamorphosis emphasizes the contiguity of the bell-ringer and the cathedral: Quasimodo becomes "moitié homme, moitié cloche" (153) ("half man, half bell" [168]). Hugo emphasizes the "harmonie (harmony)" (148 [163]) between Quasimodo and the cathedral through the bodily difference that the building causes. The cathedral makes Quasimodo deaf and causes him to become an elective mute (see 150 [165]), but it is also "un lieu de refuge" (349) ("a place of refuge" [376]). When he rescues Esmeralda, it is the appropriate setting for his physical and moral transfiguration: "en ce moment-là Quasimodo avait vraiment sa beauté" (349) ("at that moment Quasimodo truly had a beauty of his own" [377]).22 Notre Dame, like Quasimodo, expresses disability as unique, complex, and beautiful. The cathedral is closely allied with Quasimodo in that each stands for the other without either being anomalous or primary. In positioning architecture as a universal language, Hugo makes disability a normative expression within that language.23


People with intellectual and physical disabilities are not at the margins of this text; disability is part of nearly every character. Hugo's love of paradox and intellectual complexity makes this a novel in which architecture voices freedom, revolution, intellectual brilliance, universality, and inclusion as much as it represents liminal, transitional spaces that express the anxiety of communication. Hugo gives architectural spaces an expressive voice for people with disabilities: the cathedral bells enable Quasimodo to talk to the city; the home-tomb of the melancholic self-immured sachette echoes with the sounds of her head banging on stone as she longs to reunite with her lost daughter. Her architectural isolation signals her loss and self-imprisonment. Moreover, Frollo's psychosis transforms the buildings on the Seine into the chimneys of Hell. Hugo sees the gothic cathedral as belonging to a disabled aesthetic that redefines beauty as atypicality—this is by virtue of the cathedral's initial construction as a "grotesque" body, and through the alteration of the building through the effects of time, revolution, and fashion. The cathedral is spoken about as being made to carry prostheses, and as passing in eras that privileged a different aesthetic. Because of the different ways in which the cathedral's aesthetic appearance is culturally consumed, and its status as a complex transitional building that has its origins in different architectural styles, Hugo terms it a "drifting symbol." Importantly, Hugo's exploration of the affinity between gothic architecture and the disabled body leads him to an aspect of the relationship between architecture and the body that is pertinent to modern discussions of disability. He suggests that architecture is a universal language, and that disability is a normative expression in this language. For Hugo, buildings can reveal the presence of people with non-normative bodies and minds without disabling them. Notre-Dame de Paris offers an account of architectural language that employs visual and spatial rhetoric in its persuasive assertion that the disabled body is more than a product of a building (in the sense that the staircase disables the wheelchair user). Long before the concept of universal design, Hugo stresses that a building can be symbolic and expressive of disability, aesthetically and spatially, in ways that reveal that it participates in disabled identities harmoniously.

Works Cited

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  • Eco, Umberto. "Function and Sign: The Semiotics of Architecture." Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. Ed. Neil Leach. New York: Routledge, 1997. 182-202. Print.
  • Hugo, Victor. Notre-Dame de Paris; Les Travailleurs de la mer. Ed. Jacques Seebacher and Yves Gohin. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris: Gallimard, 1975. Print.
  • ---. Notre-Dame de Paris. Trans. Alban Krailsheimer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.
  • Imrie, Rob. "Oppression, Disability, and Access in the Built Environment." The Disability Reader. Ed Tom Shakespeare. New York: Continuum, 1998. Print.
  • Imrie, Rob and Hall, Peter. Inclusive Design: Designing and Developing Accessible Environments. London: Spon, 2000. Print.
  • Kessler, Joan C., "Babel and Bastille: Architecture as Metaphor in Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris." French Forum 11 (1986): 183-197. Print.
  • Kirby, Kathleen. Indifferent Boundaries: Spatial Concepts of Human Subjectivity. New York: Guildford, 1996. Print.
  • Kuppers, Petra. "The Wheelchair's Rhetoric: The Performance of Disability." The Drama Review 51 (2007): 80-88. Print.
  • Michalko, Rod and Tanya Titchkosky, "Putting Disability in Its Place: It's Not a Joking Matter." Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture. Ed. James C. Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2001. 200-228. Print.
  • Nash, Suzanne. "Writing a Building: Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris." French Forum 8 (1983): 122-133. Print.
  • Olsen, Lester C., Cara A. Finnegan, Diane S. Hope, eds. Visual Rhetoric: A Reader in Communication and American Culture. Los Angeles: Sage, 2008. Print.
  • Preziozi, Donald, Architecture, Language and Meaning. The Hague: Mouton, 1979. Print.
  • Putnam, Michelle. "Conceptualizing Disability: Developing a Framework for Political Disability Identity." Journal of Disability Policy Studies 16 (2005): 188-198. Print.
  • Shakespeare, Tom. Disability Rights and Wrongs. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Abor: U of Michigan P, 2008. Print.
  • Simpson, Jacqueline and Roud, Steve The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
  • Steinfeld, Edward and Gary Scott Danford. Eds. Enabling Environments: Measuring the Impact of Environment on Disability and Rehabilitation. New York: Plenum, 1999. Print.
  • Swain, John et al. Disabling Barriers, Enabling Environments. London: Sage, 1993. Print.
  • Thompson, C. W., "Victor Hugo rôdeur de barrières et de frontières." Victor Hugo: Romancier de l'abîme. Ed J. A. Hiddleston. Oxford: Legenda, 2002. 179-195. Print.
  • Thompson, Hannah. "The Monster and the Monument in Victor Hugo's Paris." Imagining the City: The Art of Urban Living. Ed. Christine Emden, Catherine Keen and David Midgley. Bern: Peter Lang, 2006. 59-75. Print.
  • Williams, Elizabeth. "The Perception of Romanesque Art in the Romantic Period: Archeological Attitudes in France in the 1820s and 1830s." Forum for Modern Language Studies 21 (1985): 303-321. Print.
  • Zarifopol-Johnston, Ilinca M., "Notre-Dame de Paris: The Cathedral in the Book." Nineteenth-Century French Studies 13 (1985): 22-35. Print.


  1. The claim that architecture is a language has a long history, and the difficulties arising from this notion have been extensively discussed in Clarke and Crossley. The main distinction between language and architecture that has traditionally been present in the debates since Vitruvius is that architecture operates using a presentational mode, is "a Gestalt, an organic unity, perceived and [is] apprehended as a whole and therefore [is] inexpressible in any other way than through itself" (Clarke and Crossley 2). Conversely, language operates, primarily, in a linear and narrative format, deriving meaning "by placing one symbolic element — words, punctuation marks, figures, letters — after another in a significant order, sequentially, and therefore in the dimension of time" (Clarke and Crossley 2).

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  2. Fictional architectural spaces are rarely included in discussions of accessibility, but they further develop theoretical perspectives on the politicization of architectural space. Rob Imrie explores the "interrelationships between architects, power and the [real] built environment" (130) arguing that "the perpetuation of disablist spaces is critically linked to the socio-institutional practices of architects and the wider design professions" (30). Exploring the relationship between environment and the social model of disability, Tom Shakespeare observes that "limited conceptual work has been done on the concept of the barrier-free world" (44), probably on account of the small advances that have been made towards implementing universal design. Tobin Siebers identifies an "ideology of ability [that] favors one particular social body for which all spaces have been designed" (84). See also Swain et al and Steinfeld and Danford.

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  3. Petra Kuppers suggests that disability simulations in educative contexts are problematic because they produce "performances of disability [that] show more about nondisabled differently-adapted bodies than about the 'real' situation of an experienced wheelchair user, or visually impaired person navigating her world" (80).

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  4. Rod Michalko and Tanya Titchkosky summarize a number of current concepts concerning person-environment interactions, arguing that "Who disabled persons are is constructed in relation to the fact that they are moving and living in an environment that in various ways is not 'set up' for them" (216). They mention the "text of an environment's intentions," and describe reading an environment, but do not conceptualize their discussion in terms of language much beyond this (222). See also Siebers and Putnam.

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  5. The relationship between buildings and people with disabilities is a defining part of what has come to be known as the social model of disability. See Swain et al.

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  6. Kuppers goes into detail about The Museum of Fetishized Identities (2000) — a performance-art piece that takes place in a gallery. Guillermo Gómez-Peña and his troupe create "a museum display staged as living tableaux" (Kuppers 82). This, Kuppers suggests, is an experience akin to a "freakshow breaking into the museum, the older memories of live displays at fairs smudging the borderline between disinterest and spectacle" (83). While this section of her study does not explore the language of architecture, it does examine the politics of architectural space.

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  7. Gringoire's drama uses word-play and visual signs in his allegory of the royal courtship. The problem of decipherable signs is also significant in the characterization of Claude Frollo as an alchemist in search of the meaning of mysterious symbols. Esmeralda may also be seen as a sign that is difficult to decipher, as her real identity as the daughter of the sachette, and not a gypsy, is concealed for much of the narrative. Hugo's use of language and visual symbols has been extensively discussed in Gilbert Chaitin's "Victor Hugo and the Hieroglyphic Novel."

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  8. A red door separates the mentally-distressed Frollo from his obsession, Esmeralda. It divides them symbolically as well as physically. When Frollo unlocks the door, he signals, through his movement within the building, his intention to rape her. The color of the door signals his passion and blood, and is consistent with Esmeralda's characterization of him as a vampire (also applied to her in her trial). Frollo's "bouche lascive rougissait le cou de la jeune fille" (469) ("lascivious mouth left red marks on the girl's throat" [507]).

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  9. Face-pulling or gurning contests consist of "the competitive making of grotesque faces, usually with the face framed by a horse-collar" (Simpson and Roud 158).

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  10. The action of the beginning of the novel takes place on 6 January, Twelfth Night or Epiphany, hence the revelry.

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  11. The word "flottant" hints at "drifting," in the sense of an uncontrolled instability, but it also indicates that the symbol "floats," meaning that it is mobile. When applied to character, "flottant" signals vacillation. It is possible that Hugo intends all three meanings here.

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  12. Joan Kessler suggests, "the hybrid 'incomplete,' evolutionary construction [of Note Dame], the product of centuries, participates in a Babelic identity which links it to the myth of progress and the people" (191). Art, for Hugo, plays an important role "as an agent of societal betterment and a voice for the aspirations of the People" (Kessler 195).

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  13. Kessler calls Frollo's vision of Babel "an externalization of his own damned soul," and "architectural embodiment of a seemingly irredeemable inner darkness," (195) an emblem of "the obsession of overweening ambition" and of his obsession with texts (190).

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  14. The scene also has obvious phallic references, as do many of the scenes in which Frollo confronts or expresses his passion.

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  15. Frollo's eccentricity is diagnosed as madness in this scene because the physician and his companion, Compére Tourangeau (who is the King in disguise), take him literally. This is not because they do not understand part-whole relationships. Rather, the King reveals his identity at the end of the scene by using synecdoche, referring to himself by one of his titles, the abbot of Saint-Martin de Tours. The king and his companion misunderstand the complexity of the analogy, the symbolisme flottant.

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  16. Crystal Downing invents the term "architexture" to describe fiction that constructs "architectural images" to "pose (as) synecdoches of the texts that contain them" (13). Zarifopol-Johnston makes the similar point that "Notre-Dame de Paris contains within itself the image of an 'epic' cathedral" (27). Downing argues, further, that texts such as Notre-Dame de Paris and Bleak House center on buildings that are "architectural synecdoches" that "cannot fully enclose or contain their human subjects" (13). These texts, she suggests, offer a reading strategy that invites us to pursue deferred meanings and embrace "an aesthetics of presence undermined by deferral of meaning" (13-4).

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  17. C. W. Thompson hypothesizes that Hugo frequently makes associations between bodies and buildings because of his preoccupation with his own health.

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  18. Joan Kessler notes in her discussion of the rhetorical emphasis in Notre-Dame de Paris that Hugo is reluctant to emphasize the part of revolutionary violence in the destruction of architecture, and that he prefers to blame academic classicism: "…in the context of the novel, an anti-classical stance, far from having revolutionary connotations, appears perfectly consistent with a position of extreme conservatism. Formulated another way, in Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo can express an essentially conservative outlook without being obliged explicitly to condemn the forces of popular revolt, the struggles of humanity for liberation — values which, in other contexts, the novel often readily espouses" (186).

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  19. Elizabeth Williams notes that eighteenth-century theorists of architecture supposed "the pointed arch as Moorish or Arabic in origin. Perhaps it was, if by origin one means priority of dating; but structurally the Moorish arch was quite different from the Gothic one" (320, n. 21).

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  20. Notre Dame also plays an important role in the novel's discourse of sanctuary. Esmeralda is rescued from Frollo's jealousy, for a time, by its walls and by its status as a religious building. The size of the building gives Esmeralda a sense of security ("cette vaste église qui l'enveloppait de toutes parts, qui la gardait, qui la sauvait, ètait elle-même un souverain calmant" [370] ["that vast church which enveloped her on every side, guarding her, saving her, was itself a sovereign tranquillizer" (399)]), and its religious layout comforts her ("Les lignes solennelles de cette architecture, l'attitude religieuse de tous les objets qui entouraient la jeune fille, les pensées pieuses et sereines qui se dégageaient, pour ainsi dire, de tous les pores de cette pierre, agissaient sur elle à son insu" [370] ["The solemn lines of the architecture, the religious attitude of all the objects around the girl, the devout and sincere thoughts given off, so to speak, by every pore of the stonework, acted on her without her knowing" (399)]). In this, Hugo implies not only that buildings speak, but that the cathedral uses a universal and ecumenical spatial language.

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  21. Gaston Bachelard, in his discussion of the phenomenology of images, in The Poetics of Space (first published in 1958), identifies the shell as a poetic image of "inhabited stone" (115) and the nest also as an image that characterizes Quasimodo's relationship with his home, a "primal image" of "refuge" that "brings out the primitiveness in us" (91). For Bachelard, space is a dwelling place for human consciousness, and the shell "invites day-dreams of refuge" (107). These associations are fitting for Hugo's characterization of Notre Dame as a refuge and for his emphasis on Quasimodo's naturalness.

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  22. The importance of Quasimodo's beauty in the scene is often overlooked. Hannah Thompson, for instance, argues straightforwardly that Quasimodo "represents the monstrous side of Notre-Dame" (63) and is "rendered monstrous" by virtue of his "physical deformities" (63).

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  23. My view here differs from that of Hannah Thompson, who asserts that descriptions of Quasimodo are so confusing that he "defies description" and the "deformed body is [therefore] outside language" (67). While I disagree with Thompson's ableist statement that Hugo expresses, through the complexity of his descriptions of Quasimodo, a "fear of putting a name to the grotesque realities of the uncontrollable monstrous form," I agree with her comment that Hugo's lexicon of architectural description identifies the cathedral with Quasimodo (68).

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