Literature / The Man Who Laughs
His love is real, but his smile is not.
An 1869 Victor Hugo novel.

The eponymous protagonist, Gwynplaine, bears a face disfigured by torture into a permanent smile. As a child, it was done to him in order to punish him for his nobleman father's offense to the king. One night, after being abandoned in the snow, Gwynplaine wanders aimlessly, seeking shelter. He comes across the corpse of a woman who had frozen to death underneath a dead man hanging from a gibbet. In her arms, he finds a still living, blind baby girl. Eventually, Gwynplaine comes to the home of the charlatan Ursus and his wolf companion Homo. Ursus has pity upon the two orphan children and takes them in.

Several years later, we see that the group have been making a living traveling from place to place performing plays which all showcase Gwynplaine revealing his disfigured, smiling face to the crowd. The blind child has also survived, growing up to be the virtuous, graceful beauty known as Dea. Dea is in love with Gwynplaine who, though he reciprocates, feels unworthy of her because of his disfigurement.

Upon doing a show at a village fair, Gwynplaine attracts the attention of the bored, sexy duchess Josiana. He soon gains even more attention from the Queen Anne as it is found out that Gwynplaine is the son and heir to Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie's position and estate.

The original novel follows a path similar to many of Hugo's other novels, ending in a depressing Downer Ending. Though not the author's most well-known work, there have been several film versions of the story (only one of which is in sound). The most well-known and best remembered adaptation is the heart-wrenchingly beautiful 1928 movie. It featured Conrad Veidt as the main character, whose freakish grin and clown-like appearance was the primary inspiration for The Joker, which came full circle in 2005 with "Batman: The Man Who Laughs", the sequel to Batman: Year One.

A new, French adaptation of the film was released in Christmas 2012, starring Gérard Depardieu as Ursus.

The Man Who Laughs contains examples of:

  • Age Lift: Dea is found as a small child by Gwynplaine in the 2012 movie, rather than as a baby.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The bottle left in the sea when a ship sank at the start of the book, is found years later, revealing Gwynplaine`s heritage.
  • Downer Ending: Dea dies. Gwynplaine (apparently) drowns himself. This is not the case, however, in the 1928 movie, which has a much more upbeat ending.
  • Driven to Suicide: Gwynplaine drowns himself after Dea dies. Interestingly, the 2012 film has Dea take arsenic after she hears Gwynplaine and Josiana together.
  • Expy: Just to name a few...
  • Freaky Is Cool: Gwynplaine is understandably unhappy with his freakish appearance, but Dea loves that no matter how bad things are, he is always smiling when she "sees" his face. Also, Josiana thinks he's sexy.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The French movie shows Gwynplaine being chased down and mocked by kids his age after one of Ursus' countryside shows.
  • Only Sane Man: Tom-Jim-Jack, also known as Lord David Clancharie, who turns out to be the only benevolent person from all the aristocrats in the book. He is also Gwynplaine's brother.
  • Punny Name: Homo (who's a wolf): "Man is a wolf to man".
  • Rage Against the Reflection: Very briefly in the 2012 film, with Gwynplaine looking into the river before skipping stones.
  • Slasher Smile: Although Gwynplaine's not a bad guy, he sports a permanent one.
  • Snicket Warning Label: If you want a happy ending, just stop reading when Dea proclaims her love to Gwynplaine. Trust me.