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Literature / The Man Who Laughs

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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. It was done to him as a child 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 Batman's Arch-Enemy The Joker, which came full circle in the 1989 Short Story, The Man Who Laughs (by Stuart M Kaminsky), first published in The Further Adventures of Batman. Referenced again in 2005 with "Batman: The Man Who Laughs", the sequel to Batman: Year One, and again with Dark Nights: Metal, which introduced The Batman Who Laughs as a villain.

A new, French adaptation of the film was released in 2012, starring Gérard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Seigner.

The Man Who Laughs contains examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: The characters' names are pretty weird, considering the time and place of the novel’s setting: Linnaeuss Clancharlie, David Dirry-Moir, Josiana, Barkilphedro. Somewhat subverted with Gwynplaine, who, supposedly, got his name from Flemish doctor Hardquannone, and Ursus, who gave up his Christian name in favor of Latin nickname. Dea herself was christened by Ursus.
  • Age Lift: Dea is found as a small child by Gwynplaine in the 2012 movie, rather than as a baby.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The House of Lords is a nasty place. Given what was done to Gwynplaine to kick off the plot, this isn't very surpising.
  • Arranged Marriage: King Charles II sets up one that seems to tie up the loose ends to his problems by arranging his illegitimate daughter to marry the son of his lover's son, who has the title the King stole from his rival's son who was the proper heir.
  • Betty and Veronica: Saintly Dea who loves Gwynplaine in spite of his deformity, or glamourous Josiana who wants him because of his deformity?
  • Blind and the Beast: Dea is blind due to her being out in the elements as a baby, Gwynplaine her lover is hideously deformed.
  • Break the Cutie: Dea and Gwynplaine's idealism doesn't go well in a Victor Hugo setting where Humans Are Flawed.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: Gwynplaine always has one whether he wants to or not.
  • 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.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: Barkilphedro works his day job but essentially resents Josiana and is only out for himself, which, in a way, helps drive the plot when he finds the message in a bottle.
  • The Cutie: The helpless and innocent Dea.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: A played with concept in that Josiana wants a lover that will embarrass her sister and the other royalty. If her father was still alive, he most certainly would have hated and been embarrassed just as much.
  • Did Not Get the Girl:
    • Gwynplaine arrives too late as he is only just in time to see his lover Dea die. He then commits suicide.
    • Josiana refuses to get with her intended husband, David, and wants Gwynplaine. When Gwynplaine becomes her intended husband, she doesn't want him and will consider David as a lover. With Gwynplaine abandoning his title and his suicide, David is likely back to being her intended husband and, well, Here We Go Again!.
  • Disabled Love Interest: Dea is blind and in general weak health due to spending time as a baby out in the cold. However Gwynplaine is technically one himself to her and Josiana given his face is forever mutilated.
  • Downer Ending: Dea dies and 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 (Victor apparently likes to reuse his characters)...
  • 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.
  • Glasgow Grin: Gwynplaine's smile is a complex example. His face was deliberately mutilated to be forever in a grin. Artwork for the character usually portrays this in a less fancy version of the Chatterer. He is fully capable of talking with this deformity, though he's also had many years to figure out how to do without full use of normal human lips.
    • Adaptations have had some problems depicting this. In the silent film, Conrad Veidt wore a device that pulled his mouth all the way open and he couldn't speak at all with it, turning the film into a silent. The later movie and musicals that required him to talk have gone with a painted on smile that is able to let the actors talk but is clear Adaptation Deviation.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Queen Anne and Duchess Josiana are half sisters, and they do not see eye to eye at all.
  • The Grotesque: Gwynplaine's face is mutilated into a permanent smile.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Meet my wolf, Homo.
  • The Hedonist: Duchess Josiana only really seems to care about doing what she wants and screwing over expectations.
  • The Hero Dies: Implied at the end of the book when Gwynplaine commits suicide.
  • Historical Domain Character: Queen Anne Stuart appears as the sister of Josiana.
  • Idle Rich: This is how most aristocrats are represented, descending into Aristocrats Are Evil or, in Josiana's case, into The Hedonist. Though Josiana herself is considered a Black Sheep even among this crowd.
  • Karma Houdini: Barkilphedro’s plans for getting Gwynplaine’s favor and humiliating Josiana fail, but, other than that, he receives no punishment whatsoever.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The French movie shows Gwynplaine being chased down and mocked by kids his age after one of Ursus' countryside shows.
  • Lonely at the Top: As Gwynplaine finds out, being Lord Clancharlie isn't very good, and he runs back to his real home.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Gwynplaine loves Dea but feels conflicted over his deformities, while Dea loves him anyway. Josiana is in an Arranged Marriage to David but she wants to have a sexual relationship with a lower class man to spite the Queen, her sister. Josiana wants Gwynplaine to be that person, but Gwynplaine and David are brothers and Gwynplaine is the rightful heir to David's title, and because the arranged marriage was to the holder of the title, Gwynplaine is her actual arranged husband, which prompts Josiana to no longer want him and then to consider David for a lover.
  • Meaningful Name: "Dea" (Goddess), "Ursus" (Bear), "Homo" (Stop snickering, it means Human).
  • Modesty Towel: In the 1928 film, after the Duchess gets out of the bath, she wraps a long towel around her body and walks around her room with Homo.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Josiana seems to have a huge attraction to disfigured people. Her scheme to embarrass royalty only required a partner of low-class; the deformity is just her personal taste. As such, when she sees Gwynplaine, he's exactly perfect for her because he appears to be both. This is foreshadowed early as her intended husband David, who can't seem to get anywhere with her, takes her to such charming places as old school fist fighting and freak shows as her idea of a hot date locale.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: Homo the wolf.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Ursus raises both Gwynplaine and Dea together. They are like brother and sister, but also fall in love.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: The Man Who Laughs.
  • Only Sane Man: Tom-Jim-Jack, also known as Lord David Clancharie, turns out to be the only benevolent person from all the aristocrats in the book. He is also Gwynplaine's brother.
  • Perpetual Smiler: Gwynplaine, thanks to his torture.
  • Punny Name: Homo, Ursus' pet wolf, is named for the Latin phrase "Homo homini lupus", or "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.
  • Rags to Riches: Gwynplaine grows up a poor mountebank only to find he's actually the rightful Lord Claincharlie.
  • Sexless Marriage: Josiana believes in this trope because she'd rather sleep with someone other than her husband to embarrass her sister the Queen. As she puts it her "bedroom is for her lover, not her husband".
  • Slasher Smile: Although Gwynplaine's not a bad guy, he sports a permanent one.
  • Smart People Know Latin: Ursus is knowledgeable in Latin, and frequently uses Latin phrases in everyday speech.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the book, Dea dies of a broken heart just before she is re-united with Gwynplaine, who promptly drowns himself. They are still alive at the end of the 1928 film.
  • Starcrossed Lovers: Dea and Gwynplaine are in love but seem to be kept apart by forces beyond their control in the novel; the 1928 film averts this for them.
  • Team Dad: Ursus serves as a father figure to his caravan, including Gwynplaine and Dea.
  • Truth in Television: Debated. Comprachicos is a word coined by Victor Hugo himself, but the trade itself was rumored to have existed in the period Hugo set his story. There is very little evidence to outright prove as such, but if we are being fair, these would have been people who would have done a lot of work to avoid leaving much evidence behind in their day. The folk tales of the common people would obviously be one of the hardest things to stamp out, and it is in the folk that they seem to be mostly documented.
  • Uptown Girl: The Duchess Josiana falls in love with the disfigured freak showman Gwynplaine.