Greetings, fellow bookworms!
Well, as you all know by now, I’m obsessed with Victor Hugo. I’ve been reading his works for the last two years and I have yet to find a book that I don’t like. I honestly have no idea how a person could dislike Hugo, but I suppose everyone is entitled to their own opinions. 😆
At any rate, personal biases aside, today I’m going to be reviewing The Man Who Laughs. This was the third book by Hugo that I read and I’ll admit that I have mixed feelings on it. However, I hope to do it justice today. If you’ve read The Man Who Laughs, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
But without further rambling, here we go!
Title: The Man Who Laughs: A Romance of English History
The original French title for The Man Who Laughs was L ‘Homme qui rit (which translated, means By Order of the King)
Author: Victor-Marie Hugo
Genre: Novel, fiction, romance, classics, historical fiction, French literature
Length: 386 pages (again, different people have different thoughts on this, but 386 was the most common opinion)
Publication Date: April 1869
A Bit of Background: Hugo wrote The Man Who Laughs over the period of fifteen months, during his exile to the Channel Islands. The novel depicts England’s rule as a cruel and power-hungry system.
Fun Fact: The 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs—based on the book—is what inspired the Joker’s famous smile.
The Man Who Laughs is a story like no other. Following the adventures of young Gwynplaine, we first see him as a ten-year-old child who later discovers that he is a well-distinguished peer of England. Unsure of how to respond to the sudden shock, Gwynplaine realizes that the poverty he once lived in was perhaps better than the indifference he finds amongst the wealthy lords and nobles. The Man Who Laughs is a fascinating tale with a poignant message that still rings true today.
I’m going to say straight off that The Man Who Laughs was remarkable. I don’t even know where to begin so I’m going to start by taking a look at the plot.
The Man Who Laughs is divided into two parts. The first part has three books and the second part has nine books. Each of those “books” has a varying number of chapters. After that, there’s the conclusion, which also has a few chapters. (I’m not sure how it is in other formats, but in the version I read, this is how the book was set up)
The two “preliminary chapters” at the beginning of the book introduce us to Ursus and Homo (Ursus is a man, Homo is a wolf), as well as giving us some background on a group of wanderers called the Comprachicos—which translates to the Child-buyers. Hugo gives so much information and background to these people that I wasn’t entirely sure they were fictional by the end of the chapter. One of the things I love about Hugo’s works is that he makes everything sound like history. He leaves no room for plot holes and his stories are so believable it’s not hard to imagine that they actually happened.
Moving on, the title of Book One gives us a feel of what the whole book is going to be like: Night Not So Black As Man. Skipping ahead we find ourselves at the third book: The Child in the Shadow. In this book we meet ten-year-old Gwynplaine, who is the main character of this book. At a very young age, his face was deformed into a permanent laugh. He’s been abandoned in the middle of a snowstorm and is now struggling to find somewhere to spend the night. In the middle of the book, Gwynplaine stumbles upon the corpse of a man hanging from a gibbet. Two chapters are spent describing the man in such detail that you actually get a visual picture of him by the time you’re done.
That which was before the child was a thing of which care was taken: the man was evidently precious. They had not cared to keep him alive, but they cared to keep him dead.The Man Who Laughs–Victor Hugo
I will admit that these chapters can get a bit creepy, especially towards the end when Gwynplaine starts to imagine that the corpse is running after him. The man is never mentioned in the book again and while I feel like you get a lot of important information about certain customs of the time . . . I would recommend skipping these chapters if you’re uneasy about them.
By this point, you’re probably getting the impression that The Man Who Laughs isn’t a book that you’d pick up for pleasure reading—and you’re right. I would not start reading any of Hugo’s books if you have that in mind. He talks about some pretty heavy stuff in The Man Who Laughs and it can be slightly overwhelming if you’re not used to it.
Moving on, Gwynplaine later finds a young baby lying in the snow on the breast of her dead mother. Hugo highlights the irony that the abandoned child is the only one who hears the cry of the orphaned infant. Later on, this irony comes into play again when Gwynplaine and the baby are rescued by Ursus—who is continually described as a misanthrope.
Thus concludes part one.
The first book in part two introduces us to the characters of Lord David Dirry-Moir, the Duchess Josiana, Queen Anne, and Barkilphedro. These four characters play a large role in the rest of the story, so if you’re wondering why Hugo left Gwynplaine and Dea (the baby he rescued) behind, hang on because he goes back to them again in book two: Gwynplaine and Dea.
This book shows us the bond between Gwynplaine and Dea, who are both completely in love with each other. At this point you can’t imagine anything that would ever come between the two lovers.
And this is where the Duchess Josiana comes in.
I won’t say too much about the rest of the book after this point to avoid spoilers. But Josiana basically falls in love with Gwynplaine, despite the fact that his face was hideously deformed. We get the impression that the only reason Josiana likes Gwynplaine is to spite her half-sister, Queen Anne.
Later, in the fourth book (The Cell of Torture), Gwynplaine finds out that he was the lost heir of Lord Clancharlie, a former peer of England who was banished years ago, which makes Gwynplaine a peer of England in place of Lord David Dirry-Moir, Clancharlie’s illegitimate son. (Wow, that was a tough sentence! 😅) After his initial shock, Gwynplaine believes that now that he’s a powerful lord, he can perhaps sway the minds of the other peers and give them compassion for the poor.
The rest of the book follows Gwynplaine’s adventures until at last he realizes that there’s so much indifference among the other lords that his compelling words don’t do any good. And because of his permanent laugh, no one even takes him seriously. Gwynplaine returns to Dea and Ursus, only to find that they’re gone. At this point, he’s in so much despair that he walks to a bridge and is about to throw himself down into the water below.
I won’t spoil the ending for you completely, but I will say that Gwynplaine doesn’t jump off the bridge. The ending of the book is absolutely tragic, but I didn’t think it was as well done as some of Hugo’s other endings and I almost feel like it would have been better if Gwynplaine had jumped.
So . . . what did I think of the book?
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. The story was very original and unique and the characters were so well thought out. However, there were a few things that are keeping me from completely falling in love with the book.
First of all, as I mentioned in this post, I felt like there was a lot of darkness in the book. Chapter titles like Hate is as Strong as Love, Storms of Men are Worse than Storms of Oceans and Barkilphedro, having aimed at the Eagle, brings down the Dove, show us just how dark this book can get. I felt like there was so much emphasis on the evil and darkness in man. It makes sense since this book wasn’t written to make anyone feel cushy or comfortable. But I still feel like there could have been at least a bit of hope. Books like Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (also by Hugo) are just as depressing, but there’s always that unquenchable thread of hope when we reach the end. When I reached the end of The Man Who Laughs, I felt like there was no hope and very resolution in the story.
Much of this stuff I didn’t notice until I reread it, which surprises me. But there was definitely a feelof hopelessness and darkness throughout the whole book.
In closing, I feel like I could read The Man Who Laughs every year or so, but it’s one of those books you want to read over a longer period of time. However, I still thought the story was excellent and the message was unforgettable.
My Favorite Character from The Man Who Laughs
He put lame cripples on their legs again, and hurled this sarcasm at them, “There, you are on your paws once more; may you walk long in this valley of tears!” When he saw a poor man dying of hunger, he gave him all the pence he had about him, growling out, “Live on, you wretch! eat! last a long time! It is not I who would shorten your penal servitude.” After which he would rub his hands and say, “I do men all the harm I can.”The Man Who Laughs–Victor Hugo
Usually it’s torture deciding which character from Hugo’s books I like the most, but this time there was no debate at all. Ursus was absolutely hilarious. I feel like Hugo always puts one character in his books to give it that much needed comic-relief. Ursus would have been the comic-relief here. He’s so used to talking to himself that he goes through long monologues at any given point in the story. It’s so funny hearing him ramble about literally everything. There’s this hilarious scene in the book where he’s being questioned and he just barely scoots around every question. Ursus is the kind of character that can have you laughing one moment and crying the next.
Would I recommend The Man Who Laughs?
I’m going to say first of all that it really depends. The Man Who Laughs has quite a few things that you might want to think about before you decide to read it. I’ll write about the main things I can remember, though I’m sure there are some things I forgot about.
First off, a boatful of people drown. Then (as was previously mentioned) Gwynplaine stumbles upon a corpse and that part is pretty creepy. There’s also a torture scene towards the middle of the story—which can also get kind of creepy.
I think the part I found the most disturbing was how Barkilphedro (the villain) is so bent on evil for literally no reason. Some of the descriptions of just how badly he wanted to hurt the Duchess Josiana are actually really dark.
The executioner handling the red-hot iron, when about to brand a prisoner, takes no heed of a little burn. Because another suffers much, he suffers nothing. To see the victim’s writings takes all pain from the inflictor.
Do harm, whatever happens.The Man Who Laughs–Victor Hugo
In the paragraph before this one, there was also a much more graphic description of just how desperately he wanted to make her feel some kind of pain.
One of the characters is part of a “fun club”, where he basically walks around doing a bunch of cruel, violent things to other human beings. There’s also one scene where the duchess and Gwynplaine stumble across each other and she’s just wearing a thin robe because she was about to take a bath. Nothing graphic, but Gwynplaine is tempted by the duchess’s beauty and she’s also “in love” with him and she talks for pages and pages about how much she’s going to enjoy her “fall from society” when people see her with Gwynplaine.
I mentioned this earlier, but in one of the chapters, Gwynplaine considers jumping off a bridge because of how miserable his life’s gotten. However, he never actually does this.
Other things you might want to know . . . two characters die at the very end of the book (so tragic) and there’s some mild language. Which I guess is sort of expected in Hugo’s books.
But anyway, if you’re comfortable with the things I mentioned up there (^^^), I’d go ahead and give the book a go! Despite being rather depressing, it’s an incredible book with a very intricate plot. The way it was written and executed was amazing and as usual, I could hardly bring myself to put the book down.
My Overall Rating
One More Thing . . .
I’m currently working on a more detailed rating system for rating books. Also, from now on I’m going to be taking note of any potential content warnings in books I read, so hopefully I can give you guys a better idea of what kind of things you might want to be aware of in books. 😉
Have you read The Man Who Laughs? Do you think you’d ever read it? What’s a book you thought you wouldn’t like, but ended up loving?