The Man who Laughs

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The Man who Laughs (In French: L'Homme qui rit) is a novel written by Victor Hugo, first published in 1869. It tells of the story of Gwynplaine, whose face at a young age was mutilated into a permanent smile, his love interest, the blind Dea, their adopted father Ursus and his pet wolf Homo, the duchess Josiana, and the Lord David Dirry-Moir. Hugo wrote the book during his time on the Channel Islands.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with two preliminary chapters. The first describes Ursus (Latin for 'bear), a cynical healer, poet, and philosopher, who travels along in a caravan which is pulled by his loyal pet wolf Homo (Latin for 'man'). In the caravan are many inscriptions, including 'Ursus, Philosopher.' The second described the Comprachicos, which are a group of outlaws that abduct children at a very young age, mutilate and deform them, and then give them to nobility for entertainment. After these two preliminary chapters, the story begins.

The novel is set in England, starting in January, 1690. The story begins at Portland. A group of people are getting ready to leave England in haste on a boat called the Matutina. When they leave, they on purposefully leave a ten year old child behind. The child, realizing that he had been abandoned, sets out alone as night comes. He comes to a dead man in a gibbet, and after looking at it in a stupor for a short time, is frightened by it and runs off.

Meanwhile, the people on board the Matutina, who turn out to be Comprachicos, get caught in a storm. With difficulty, they survive the storm, but are about to be dashed to pieces by a cliff called the Caskets, which they avoid through ingenuity. By luck they also survive the Ortach. However, along the way they gained a hole in the hold, and the ship starts to sink. As their last actions, they confess to a crime they had done, sign their names, put a paper into a gourd, and then pray to God as they drown. The gourd alone survives, riding on the waves.

Back to the ten-year-old boy, he is continuing his journey when it begins to snow. As he is following some footprints, he comes across a dead woman. From the dead woman he hears crying. He looks and finds a baby girl, still alive at her mother's breasts. The boy out of compassion picks up the girl and carries her along with him, even though this makes his journey harder. He goes through a town, and tries to get help, but apparently everybody is asleep and doesn't help him. The boy continues, until he comes on a caravan. The boy asks the man inside for help, and the man lets him and the girl inside.

The man is Ursus. He gives the boy dinner and gives milk to the little girl. He, along with Homo, then go out to inspect the dead woman's body (which the boy had told him about), and leaves the two children alone for the night. He comes back the next morning, having inspected the woman. He decides to adopt the two children by saying 'well done, Home. I shall be father, and you shall be uncle...adoption! it is settled; Homo is willing,' after Homo had licked the little girl's arm. He then notices that the boy is smiling, and after questions the boy about it, realizes that the smile is permanent (he couldn't see the smile before since it was too dark for him to do so). He also realizes that the little girl is blind.

The story then switches forward fifteen years to the year 1705 to tell about the Duchess Josiana, her betrothed Lord David Dirry-Moir, and a scoundrel called Barkilphedro. Josiana is bored, and on a le tour with David, he tells her to go see Gwynplaine to cure her boredom.

Ursus and Home are still alive, though old. Living with them are the boy named Gwynplaine and the girl named Dea (Latin for 'goddess') and who are all grown up. Gwynplaine and Dea are in love. Dea being a beautiful and virtuous (though blind) young woman who loves Gwynplaine because she can't see his face, and sees him for who he really is. It also turns out that Dea has something wrong with her heart. Along with them are two gipsy women named Vinos and Fibi. They no longer live in the caravan (though they still have it), but in a larger mobile house called the Green Box, which they got from all the money they had earned. They go around England as mount brakes, entertaining people with performances, the most notable being 'Ursus Rursus,' and 'Chaos Vanished,' which the latter of them being the most successful. As their success rises, they decided to go to London to preform there.

They arrive in London at the Tadcaster Inn, which is owned by Master Nicless with the boy Govicum, and set up in the Tarrinzeau Field, where their performances become so popular that they have no rivals among the other performers. Helping keep the peace between them is a man by the name of Tim-Jim-Jack. Eventually, the duchess Josiana comes and watches 'Chaos Vanished,' and her appearance effects Gwynplaine. Tim-Jim-Jack disappears with Josiana. Later, as Gwynplaine is walking outside, he gets a letter from Josiana, which tells him that she loves him despite his smile. Gwynplaine hides the note, and goes back to the Green Box without telling anybody about the note. The next morning, he sees Dea while eating breakfast and decides that he loves her and burns the note from Josiana. While their eating breakfeast, a man comes in and motions for Gwynplaine to follow him. He does so without anyone upsetting Dea.

Ursus follows the two secretly to the prison of Southwark where he sees Gwynplaine ushered inside. Gwynplaine is taken to a torture chamber where a man is being tortured. The man, upon seeing Gwynplaine's smile, says 'tis he,' and then dies. It is then that Gwynplaine is reveled to be the Lord Clancharlie. It turns out that he is the son of Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie who went to Switzerland and there had a child. James II, who was an enemy of Clancharlie, when the latter died, had the two-year-old son abducted and taken into the Comprachicos to be mutilated by a permanent smile. This was all retrieved by the gouard, which had miraculously survived the sea for fifteen years. Gwynplaine, upon hearing this, faints.

Outside, Ursus it is evening, and Ursus goes back to the Tarrinzeau Field, thinking that Gwynplaine is dead. He tells Master Nicless to cancel the show. In the Green Box, while Dea is sleeping, he, like a mad man, talks about how since Gwynplaine is dead, Dea will die, and how it will be better off that they were. Dea awakes for her preformance.

Meanwhile, the ineffable blind look of Dea's eyes met those of Ursus. He started.

Ursus then changes his mind and rationalizes that Dea doesn't have to die. He tells Vinos and Fibi to get Dea ready for the performance. He then uses his ventriloquism skills to make Dea believe that Gwynplaine is there, and with a little help from Govicum, a crowd as well. 'Chaos Vanished,' is preformed, with Ursus assuming the role of Gwynplaine. However, she is not fooled, and thinking that Gwynplaine is dead, starts to ponder when she will die also. Master Nicless calls for Ursus. In the tavern, Master Nicless gives Ursus Gwynplaine's esclavine, jacket, and hat, which was given to him by a man connected to the police. Ursus then goes back to the prison to find out if Gwynplaine is really dead or not. A bell rings fifteen times, announcing a funeral of an inmate of the prison. Ursus sees the police carry off a body he assumes to be Gwynplaine's.

'He is dead!' cried Ursus. He sank down upon a stone. 'Dead! They have killed him! Gwynplaine! My child! My son!' And he burst into passionate sobs. Ursus, alas! had boasted that he had never wept. His reservoir of tears was full. Such plentitude as is accumulated drop on drop, sorrow on sorrow, through a long existence, is not to be poured out in a moment. Ursus wept alone. The first tear is a letting out of waters. He wept for Gwynplaine, for Dea, for himself, for Homo. He wept like a child. He wept like an old man. He wept for everything at which he had ever laughed...Man is never nonsuited when he pleads his right to tears.

Ursus goes back to the Tadcaster Inn, rationalizing that that might not have been Gwynplaine. But when he gets there, Barkilphedro informs him that Gwynplaine is indeed dead, and orders him to leave with Homo, otherwise the wolf would have to be killed.

Meanwhile, Gwynplaine awakens at a house where Barkilphedro tells him about his lordship and that he now has the ability to decide whether or not he wants it. Gwynplaine says that he does and Barkilphedro leaves. Gwynplaine then changes his mind, and tries to exit the house, where he accidentally encounters Josiana. Josiana then reveals that she loves him because of his ugliness. After she leaves, Gwynplaine meets Tim-Jim-Jack, who is actually the Lord David Dirry-Moir.

Gwynplaine is then taken to London, where there is a meeting of the Lords of England to discuss some bills. On a bill charging the country with costs for the improvements made by the Queen to her residence at Hampton Court, Gwynplaine votes no to it and talks about why, telling the nobility about the plight of the poor and their obliviousness to it. At first, he manages with lots of willpower to keep his smile away, but then it comes back and the lords don't take him seriously anymore, and dismiss because of the interruption. Outside, Gwynplaine stumbles upon David scolding other lords for mocking Gwynplaine. After the lord leave, David confronts Gwynplaine about the insult the latter made on his mother during his speech, where it turns out that the two of them are half-brothers. David then challenged Gwynplaine to a duel.

That night, Gwynplaine goes to the Tarrinzeau Field where he finds it empty. He then leaves a note denouncing his lordship and giving it to David. He then meets Homo who he follows to a ship. On the ship are Ursus and Dea, without Vinus and Fibi, and without the Green Box, only the caravan they originally had. Gwynplaine doesn't reveal himself at first, he only observes. Dea is weak, and Ursus fears that if she receives a shock, she will die. Gwynplaine then reveals himself to Dea. As the ship starts to leave England, all four of them start to reunite, with Gywnplaine and Dea telling each other how much they love each other.

However, this is cut short when an artery in Dea's heart bursts which causes her to die. While Ursus is in swoon over this, Gwynplaine then jumps over the ship into the water, believing that that is the only way to reunite with Dea. Ursus reawakens to find him gone.


  • Barkilphedro -a man who works for nobility who finds out that Gwynplaine is actually Lord Clancharlie.
  • David Dirry-Moir -a young man, also known as Tom-Jim-Jack, who is betrothed to Josiana, and is the half-brother of Gwynplaine.
  • Dea -a young woman who is blind and the love interest of Gwynplaine. She has heart troubles. Her name is Latin for 'goddess.'
  • Govicum -a boy at the Tadcaster Inn.
  • Gwynplaine -a young man, also known as Lord Clancharlie, abandoned by a group of Comprachicos at the age of ten in England, where he found Dea, and was later taken in by Ursus. His face is mutilated into a permanent smile by the Comprachicos, an event that he doesn't remember. He is a successful mount brake along with his adopted family, and uses his smile in their performances.
  • Josiana -a duchess who is the sister of Queen Anne. She falls in love with Gwynplaine because of his ugliness.
  • Master Nicless -the owner of the Tadcaster Inn.
  • Ursus -an old man who is the adopted father of Gwynplaine and Dea, and master of Homo. He is a cynical misanthropist, a healer, a poet, and a philosopher. His name is Latin for 'bear.'
    • Homo -Ursus' loyal pet wolf who sometimes pulls the caravan. His name is Latin for 'man.'