Choosing Compassion: ‘A Tear for a Drop of Water’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
February 22, 2021 Updated: February 22, 2021

What are monsters? We often consider them dangerously different people, creatures, and things that loom on the outskirts of our lives. 

We construct societies with agreed-upon standards, norms, and laws to benefit our livelihood and safety. Monsters are the very things that challenge and disrupt our sense of security and self-esteem. We can learn a lot about ourselves based on how we react to this type of disruption.

A scene from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” presents several ways in which we may react to the perceived monsters in our lives.

Quasimodo and Esmeralda

The scene in question is the one in which Quasimodo is punished for attempting to abduct Esmeralda. A summary of the scene and its backstory goes as follows:

A torturer has just tied Quasimodo to the pillory on a stage and beaten him. This platform was the same platform where Quasimodo, because of his ugliness, was designated the “Pope of Fools” during the Feast of Fools festival—a festival that parodies Christian morality and worship—just a day earlier. 

Quasimodo is the personification of a monster, the ugliest person in Paris, an insult to the crowd’s standard of beauty. He has red bristles for hair, a large wart on one eye, a hump between his shoulders, a protrusion from his chest, and is deaf from sleeping next to the bells at Notre Dame.

The troubled and dangerous priest Claude Frollo was the one who adopted Quasimodo when the rest of the town abandoned him. Quasimodo became a submissive slave to Frollo and carried out his orders, even when those orders caused others harm. 

It was Frollo who ordered Quasimodo to abduct Esmeralda because of Frollo’s lust for her. He thought the devil had sent her to tempt him, and he was unable to resist. Esmeralda was not interested in Frollo and rejected his advances.

Frollo approached the stage as the torturer whipped Quasimodo. Quasimodo was happy to see his master and called out to him, but since Quasimodo had failed to abduct Esmeralda, Frollo turned his back on the poor creature.     

To add insult to injury, the Parisian crowd taunted the beaten Quasimodo. When Quasimodo begged for water, the crowd mocked his thirst. But Esmeralda, the woman he had attacked, walked onto the platform and gave him the water he desperately needed.

Quasimodo, so touched by her kindness, almost forgot to drink. In that moment of her compassion, he fell in love with her and planned to defend her honor. Finally, the torturer released Quasimodo, and the crowd left. 

Merson_-_esmeralda-and-quasimodo-1905_
“A Tear for a Drop of Water,” 1903, by Luc-Olivier Merson. Oil on canvas, 76.8 inches by 43.3 inches. Victor Hugo House. (Public Domain)

The Compassion of Esmeralda

“A Tear for a Drop of Water,” a painting by Luc-Olivier Merson, illustrates the scene from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in which Esmeralda gives her attacker, the beaten Quasimodo, water.

At the top right of the composition is Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral. Merson paints Quasimodo as he is described by Hugo, with a wart over his eye and red bristles for hair. However, Quasimodo’s modest clothing and contorted position obscure his hump and protrusion as he twists toward Esmeralda. 

UNE LARME POUR UNE GOUTTE D'EAU
Detail of  “A Tear for a Drop of Water,” 1903, by Luc-Olivier Merson. Oil on canvas. Victor Hugo House. (Public Domain)

Esmeralda’s beauty contrasts greatly with Quasimodo’s ugliness. She is bejeweled and clothed in the elegant dress of a Roma dancer. Her dress also separates her from the crowd and lets the viewer know that she is different.

Esmeralda’s pet goat, Djali, whom she has taught tricks, accompanies her to the stage. Djali does tricks during Esmeralda’s Roma performances and represents her Roma lifestyle. Later, on this same platform, Esmeralda will be executed.

Tied to the pillory is the beaten Quasimodo. He turns toward Esmeralda with a look of adoring appreciation as she puts her flask to his lips.

Below them stands the animated crowd bellowing taunts at Quasimodo. The crowd encircles the stage that holds Quasimodo and Esmeralda, letting us know that this is a public affair of humiliation.

Choosing Compassion

Merson gives us two ways in which people respond to the monster Quasimodo. How might these two responses morally inform us today? What wisdom might we extract from Merson’s painting?

First, the crowd ridicules and taunts Quasimodo because he is considered an ugly monster. Nothing about Quasimodo appears normal.

I believe ridiculing and taunting Quasimodo gives the crowd a false sense of self-esteem and confidence. Participating with the crowd allows even the ugliest and dumbest person to feel normal in relation to him. 

Doing what everyone else is doing, even when it’s harmful, can make us feel like we belong. Aligning with the crowd can make it feel like our insufficiencies melt away. Here lies the power, the allure, of the crowd.

Responding to the monster in this way brings out the monster in us. We can be one monster of many who harm others to feel secure about ourselves. And as we become unable to recognize others’ suffering, the monster in us grows.

Or we can take the other route, which is Esmeralda’s approach. I think Merson paints Esmeralda as the personification of compassion. Is this why she is painted so beautifully compared to everyone else? 

As the personification of compassion, Esmeralda is the most beautiful of them all and is different from them all, for it is compassion—the very thing that gives the scene its moral power—that the crowd lacks.

Esmeralda’s elegant blue dress and ornate adornment set her apart from the crowd’s plain gray and brown clothing. Ironically, the crowd is dressed like the monster it berates. Is Merson suggesting that the crowd is more like a monster than it realizes?

Esmeralda is not only dressed differently than the crowd but also behaving differently. The crowd is chaotic and unruly while she is calm, poised, and seems considerate. She recognizes her attacker’s suffering and chooses to help him. 

She exercises her freedom to act morally different from the crowd. She chooses to be compassionate.  

The Content of Our Character

Just because Quasimodo looks like a monster doesn’t mean he is one. What determines whether or not he is a monster is not the appearance of his form but the content of his character.

The people may look normal, but they are monstrous because they attack and harm a living thing to feel good about themselves. This is the opposite of compassion.

Quasimodo, however, comes to love Esmeralda, the personification of compassion. Her compassion has such an impact on him that he’ll risk his life to defend her honor. His new love for compassion makes him anything but a monster.

Interestingly enough, Quasimodo and Esmeralda are positioned higher than the crowd. Does this suggest that there are levels of morality, that we can elevate our spirit if the content of our character aligns with compassion? 

Do we have the courage to resist and question the crowd when their actions serve only to harm? 

Are we willing to address any monsters that may be lurking in our spirit so that the content of our character is anything but monstrous? Are we able to alter others’ lives with compassionate acts? Are we ready to love compassion and defend its honor?

The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).