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 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.
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.
- 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.
- Betty and Veronica: Saintly Dea who loves Gwynplaine in spite of his deformity, or glamourous Josiana who wants him because of his deformity?
- 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 outfor himself which in a way helps drive the plot when he finds the message in abottle..
- The Cutie: The helpless and innocent Dea.
- Disabled Love Interest: Dea is blind and in general weak health.
- 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 (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.
- The Grotesque: Gwynplaine, obviously is an example with his face mutilated into a permanent smile.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Meet my wolf, Homo.
- The Hero Dies: Implied at the end of the book when Gwynplaine commits suicide..
- Historical Domain Character: Queen Anne Stuart appears as the character and sister of Josiana.
- 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.
- 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 is one, she has multiple issues but she seems to have a huge attraction to disfigured people. When she sees Gwynplaine she wants him for this as well as the other reason he's perfect.
- A very early sign of this trope is where David takes her before he tells her about Gwynplaine. Josiana's idea of a hot place for a date is...an old school fight match? Where most competitors came out looking quite battered and bruised. No wonder she likes Gwynplaine.
- 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.
- 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.
- Perpetual Smiler: Gwynplaine, thanks to his torture.
- 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.
- Rags to Riches : Gwynplaine grows up a poor mountebank only to find he's actually the rightful Lord Claincharlie.
- Slasher Smile: Although Gwynplaine's not a bad guy, he sports a permanent one.