Two Kinds of Lust: Lessons from The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I just finished reading Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’d read Les Miserables a few years ago, and I was amazed at Hugo’s ability to reflect the suffering and sinfulness of humanity. Reading The Hunchback only increased my admiration for his talents. Hugo’s theology was pretty graceless, but he definitely had a handle on the doctrine of human depravity.

Besides the gripping plot, what most captured my attention in the book was the continual focus on lust. As I understand it, there are two basic kinds of lust in the book: sensual lust (represented by the soldier Phoebus de Chateaupers and the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, Claude Frollo) and emotional lust (represented by the gypsy Esmeralda).

Sensual desire is what we typically think of when we hear the word lust. Although Phoebus and Frollo are opposites in many ways, both are driven by base desires for Esmeralda. There are differences, and they reflect accurately the carnal longings of humanity. Phoebus wants instant gratification. His thoughts of Esmeralda are shallow and fleeting. He wants to use her the way he has used countless other women. In fact, comically and disgustingly, he can’t even get her name right (Similar…er, Esmenarda…er, whatever) even as he promises her undying fidelity if she’ll give herself to him. Frollo’s lust is more enduring. It’s seething, consuming, relentless, and it destroys him.

More difficult to read, however, and more tragic, was the lust of Esmeralda, the teen heroine of the story. She was chaste, and indeed, protective of her purity. But she was undone by an emotional lust. She so longed to be loved that she convinced herself that the buffoon Phoebus cared for her. She was blind to his carnal desires, his fickleness, his selfishness, all because she longed for his affection. And eventually her emotional lust brought her to the verge of succumbing to his sensual lust, if only to avoid losing him (whom she never had).

Esmeralda’s dropping her guard to gain Phoebus’ heart is, frankly, a rather provocative scene, and I urge you to read it cautiously if at all. But it is a powerful depiction of reality. And as a father of four daughters, it’s both infuriating and terrifying. While it is certainly true that men have emotional longings and women physical, I think Hugo was on to something in the way he ascribed heart lust especially to ladies. How many young girls sacrifice their purity not to their own physical desires but to their longings for affection? And how many manipulative “Phoebus'” are all too ready to exploit their insecurities? (Aside to fellow dads; here’s a bit of counsel on the heels of last week’s: If you don’t meet your daughters’ needs for affection, some teen punk will, or will at least promise to.) I’ll often comment to my wife (typically with her hearty agreement) that girls are dumb. They believe a man is in love with them, or will be if they succumb to his pressure; or that a player has miraculously changed now that he’s met them; or that a liar is suddenly sincere and trustworthy; or that one who cheated with them will never cheat on them. And all this despite evidence that screams that he merely wants to use them to gratify himself. He wants sex. They want affection.  As we’ve discussed in another post, temptation appeals to the heart and ego, not just the body (Proverbs 7:15). And it ultimately leaves all of them disappointed.

The solutions to these lusts are the same as the solutions to every other sin: cleansing through the blood of Christ and contentment with the person of Christ. Those who are ruled by sensual desires need to understand the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to break those powers, not just to forgive them. Scripture teaches that there is deliverance through faith in Christ, so that you won’t always be what you once were (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). (Note: Once you’ve run to Christ as your only hope of salvation, these resources will be of help to you in your pursuit of sexual purity, I believe.)

And those ruled by emotional desires need to find their fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can satisfy. They need to learn to say that there is nothing on earth they desire besides Him (Psalm 73:25). That with Him as their Shepherd, they lack nothing (Psalm 23:1). That Christ is enough. That satisfaction is a key to sanctification.

Hugo nails the lust problem. But sadly, he doesn’t provide an answer. His book ends with despair. But the Scriptures go beyond depicting the ravaging power of lust. They provide the solution in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I commend it to you.


8 Responses

  1. Not that I would totally defend Hugo’s theology, but his philosophy is not entirely graceless. Bishop Myriel is certainly a Christ figure in Les Mis in the matter of grace. Even the man that Valjean becomes evidences grace (although one could construe of his as paying a debt–but not really). However, your comment on gracelessness may have been directed merely at Hunchback, and I’m not quite so familiar with that work. But your point is well taken. Grace from Christ is that which satisfies.

    Lest any women take offense at your “dumb” comment, men/boys are equally dumb regarding emotional lust. In fact, the Proverbs passage you referenced gives example of the temptation of a woman to a man’s emotional lust. I have often seen in general (and in private counseling) the man who flies to the arms of another woman because his wife “doesn’t understand him.” Men display an amazing bumbling stupidity for the grace of a smile or some seductive admiration. Paul learned the secret to keeping from that emotional lust (Phil 4:11-13). Although his immediate point may have been against hardship, the solution is the same–our satisfaction (as you stated) is in Christ. When our hungering and thirsting follows after him, our hearts will not “turn aside to her ways” or “stray into her paths” (Proverbs 7:25).

  2. Another good word to dads with girls (and boys).

    My youth pastor once observed (and I had forgotten until reading this) that men/boys tend to use “love” to get sex, and girls tend to use sex to get “love”. Both are “users,” in a sense.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Chris,

    I caught your blog this morning from my Google Alerts. I like the reminder you offer about the different types of lusts.

    I think about I John 2:15-16 and its broader defining of lust: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life.

    When I lust, I am emotionally committing myself. I am creating enough of a bond that it’s causing me to think about it, dream about it, want it, and work my way toward it. Sometimes what I’m lusting for is giving me an additional kick – a sexual charge, a feeling of worth, a release, a feeling that I am accepted. There seem to be emotions at work when we are lusting.

    I think many people think “lust” is only talking about sexual lust. Your blog does not, but distinguishes.

    I was in bondage to my sexual sin for many years. I didn’t realize it’s grip on me and eventually lost my job, my ministry, and almost my family over it. My wife and I have been in recovery for the last several years and seen God’s healing and restoration.

    We can get in bondage to any lust, not just sexual. We can become so consumed with power, money, fashion, technological toys, or status.

    Thanks for the thoughts. God’s blessings you to you and to your chruch.

    If our website can be a help to any sexual strugglers we hope it to be used so for God’s glory.

    Jeff Fisher

  4. Excellent points. Years ago, not being familiar with the whole plot of this, we checked out Disney’s version. It was apparent the writers/artists were cognizant of the “seething” etc. (laced with comic relief of course). Creeped me out and made me angry. Had me thinking in exclamation points. We pushed the eject button on that one.

  5. I remember reading this story about a decade ago and feeling rather oppressed by the darkness of it. As I remember it, I saw no truly noble, admirable character in the whole work. Very bleak.

  6. It is bleak. The only really admirable character is the goat. :)

    Dan, I thought Les Miserables was pretty graceless. There is life change, to be sure, but it’s the result of human kindness, not any embracing of the cross or even religion. Valjean is “bought” from a life of evil by another man’s generosity, which I guess is fine. But it’s not grace in a biblical sense. I can’t see Bishop Myriel as a Christ figure in a book in which Christ himself is mentioned, though generally just as a martyr. It’s good works begetting good works. The best novel I’ve ever read, but not grace, IMO.

  7. Chris, as your older brother and a father of one more girl than you four…thanks for scaring me, and for the reminder of the love we need to provide to our girls, not because they will try to find it elsewhere but because we are the instrument that God has sovereignly provided for meeting those needs until He one day provides a mate. I especially appreciate your focus on Christ’s sufficiency and the key of contentment. Contentment is necessary at every age and stage. It is also one of the characteristics that is more easily taught than caught. Lord, forgive and cleanse me of discontentment not only becasue of the effect on my children, but primarily because knowing you is the most imprtant and highest calling of my life.

    Thanks, bro.

  8. As the father of one dear child, a precious 9 year old daughter, I have appreciated your last couple of articles. Every so often we need to reminded of our grave, God given responsibility. Thank you.

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