This site will look much better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.

November 2003 - Issue No. #51 (p.14-17)

Global Issues through Literature Using Victor Hugo

by Olivier Urbain

Soka University, Tokyo

Language, Literature & Global Education

What should be our priority in fostering world citizens who can contribute to world peace? According to Michael Higgins, it is "the teacher's commitment to empower learners to develop the will to act in a viable and informed way in the emerging global society" (Higgins, 1999, p. 45). Empowerin g learners by giving them the means to become more independent thinkers and autonomous learners is one priority of the course described here. I also agree with Kip Cates when he says "The commitment to work towards solving world problems comes from attitudes and values involving global awareness, curiosity, altruism and social concern" (Cates, 1998, p. 213).

I would like to show how the use of literary works can form the basis of a course aimed at empowering students to develop the attitudes and values necessary for world citizenship. Using great works of literature is a new and, I believe, very promising trend in the field of global education in language teaching.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The course I taught in 1999-2000, entitled "Victor Hugo's Message for Peace," was a literature class designed for language development and peace education. The course was based on the reading of an abridged English version of Victor Hugo's 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, encourages students to realize the importance of human rights and provides a concrete appeal to stand up and act. A majority of students selected the following passage from the novel as the most rousing appeal for human rights. Esmeralda's mother is a desperate woman with a hatred of "Gypsies" whom she believes kidnapped and killed her child:

Oh! Oh! she shrieked with an appalling laugh. 'It's the gypsy girl calling me!' Just then a scene taking place at the pillory arrested her haggard gaze. Her brow wrinkled in horror and she stretched her skeleton arms outside her cell and screamed in an inhuman voice, 'So it's you again, daughter of Egypt! It's you who's calling me, child-stealer! Curse you! Curse you!' (Hugo, 1984, p. 93)

What makes this blatant discrimination even more outrageous is that the object of the mother's hatred is none other than her beloved daughter Esmeralda, who has grown up to be a beautiful dancer after being raised by the "Gypsies" who kidnapped her. Hugo's message is that prejudice and racism make us blind and can even make us hate our own children. After reading this, students were asked to do research on human rights. Some topics they selected:

  • Gypsies: Several students made presentations about the history, culture and plight of "Gypsies" - members of the Roma nation. They used to be called Gypsies because some arrived in Europe via Egypt. Actually they come from India and their language is close to Sanskrit. The students discovered that gypsies are still the victims of persecution today in Kosovo and other places just like in the Middle Ages.

  • Human Rights:Other students did research to see how many of the gypsy Esmeralda's rights, as listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), had been infringed upon in the story. Actually, almost all her rights had been ignored, allowing a thorough study of all 30 articles of this international human rights document.

Tolerance, Forgiveness and Compassion

In another passage, Hugo shows how one individual can make a difference by standing up and taking concrete action. Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, is chained to the wheel for having tried to kidnap the gypsy girl Esmeralda. As he begs for water, the crowd laughs and jeers at him. Then, in one of the most famous scenes in literature and cinema, Esmeralda braves the crowd, climbs up to him and gives him a drink of water, in a poignant gesture of forgiveness and compassion:

Choking with rage, he saw her climb quickly up the steps of the pillory. If the lightning in his eye had had the power to strike, she would have been blasted into a thousand pieces before she reached him. But without saying a word she came up to him as he writhed vainly to escape from her and, detaching a gourd from her belt, gently raised it to his parched lips. (Hugo, 1984, p. 99)

Students Taking Action

After reading this passage, students are asked to take one small step in the direction of protecting human rights: they have to interview non-Japanese residing in Japan and collect stories about discrimination. When students hear each other's reports, they are amazed to discover how much racism there is in Japan. They feel like standing up and doing something about it. Hugo can thus make us aware of injustice and give us hope that we can take some concrete action to protect human rights.


The teaching of global issues in the language classroom has been a common practice for many years (Cates, 1999). This article is an attempt to introduce literature into the global issues/language study mix. If we take a novel as the point of departure, its analysis constitutes literary education, the message of the author provides peace education and the activities based on the reading provide opportunities for language education.

One way to give coherence to the curriculum is to use the concept of learner autonomy. With this, students learn to take a personal stand for the sake of peace. Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame provides an excellent basis for this type of class. I hope this article encourages more colleagues to use literature as a point of departure for teaching global issues in language education. There are many excellent novels dealing with social and global problems. The possibilities are endless!


  • Cates, K. (1999). Global Education and Language Teacher Training. On JALT98, p. 213.
  • Cates, K. (1999). Global Education: Challenges for the Future. JALT99 Conference Handbook, p 45.
  • Higgins, M. (1999). Global Education: Challenges for the Future. JALT99 Handbook, p. 45
  • Hugo, V. (1984). The Hunchback of Notre Dame. New York: Bantam Books, pp. 93, 99 and 135.

Olivier Urbain (research fellow), Toda Institute for Global Peace & Policy Research
Transcend Univ:


Please note that the most recent issues of the newsletter are available to subscribers only. Please check our subcription page at for more details about subscribing.

You can search the site by using the above tabs or click on the links below.

Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
E-mail: Work Tel/Fax: 0857-31-5650