Notre Dame cathedral in Paris inspired three of the world’s most influential writers

The printing press turned out not be the cathedral’s worst threat.
The printing press turned out not be the cathedral’s worst threat.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
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Today the world is watching in rapt horror as one of its oldest and most celebrated buildings is destroyed by fire. The roof of Notre Dame de Paris, a 13th century Catholic cathedral, has already collapsed in the blaze, and firefighters are working furiously to save the rest of the structure, which is beloved by people of all faiths, and has been immortalized in numerous works of art and literature.

The cathedral inspired literary masters like Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, and Sigmund Freud. Hugo is the most notable example, of course. He dedicated his 19th century novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame—which in French is called simply Notre Dame de Paris—to this beloved construction. The book not only names the cathedral in the title and features detailed descriptions of it in the text, it was written specifically to generate interest in the Gothic building, which had fallen out of fashion in Paris.

Hugo thought of Notre Dame as a place of refuge and wanted to save it. He considered architecture a form of communication and lamented the fact that it would be displaced by a less glorious mode of exchange, printed books, according to University of Houston French professor Robert Zaretsky. Ironically, the writer tried to save the beloved building with the very thing he predicted would kill it in the novel dedicated to Notre Dame’s preservation.

Evidence of Zaretsky’s contention can be found in the text of the novel. The antagonist, Claude Frollo, directs his visitors to look away from a book on his desk to the massive silhouette of Notre Dame cathedral beyond his door, predicting: “This will kill that.” Zaretsky explains:

“That” is the cathedral, “this” is the machine that produced the book on his desk: the printing press. “Small things overcome great ones,” Frollo laments, “the book will kill the building.” For Frollo—or, rather, Hugo—the history of architecture is the history of writing. Before the printing press, mankind communicated through architecture. From Stonehenge to the Parthenon, alphabets were inscribed in “books of stone.” Rows of stones were sentences, Hugo insists, while Greek columns were “hieroglyphs” pregnant with meaning.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published in 1831. It should have been done earlier—Hugo began in 1829 and his publisher was waiting for it impatiently. But the writer’s preoccupation with getting the details of the cathedral’s architecture just right caused delays in his drafting. Still, Hugo did succeed in doing what he set out to do. And generations of writers since have been influenced by Notre Dame, in great part due to his love of gothic architecture.

Marcel Proust, who is most famous for the six early 20th century texts that comprise In Search of Lost Time, was also deeply impressed by the imposing cathedral. “Notre Dame de Paris was spellbinding for Proust. He was even known to have thrown a fur-lined overcoat on over his nightshirt and to have stood in front of it for two hours in order to receive fresh inspiration from the portal of Saint Anne,” writes Mary Bergman in her 2014 book about Proust and photography, On Looking Back One Learns to See. 

The grand dame of Paris enchanted scribes far and wide, not solely within the confines of France. Bergman notes that Sigmund Freud, the German psychiatrist and influential writer, was also awed by the cathedral. The first time he saw it, in 1885, Freud said he had “a sensation I never had before.” Thereafter, he returned to Notre Dame “every free afternoon” to be in its majestic presence. “I have never seen anything so movingly serious and somber,” Freud said of the structure.

Now the cathedral’s majestic spire is gone, engulfed in flames. “Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame,” a spokesman told French media. What remains, on this somber day, is a skeleton and the memories of the people who took refuge within the walls of what Hugo called “the inviolable” Notre Dame.