The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs
The Man Who Laughs  
Author(s) Victor Hugo
Country France
Language French
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Ce
Publication date April 1869
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 12 vol.
ISBN 978-2-07-041871-8 (French Folio fr:Folio#Les années poche)
OCLC Number 49383068

The Man Who Laughs is a novel by Victor Hugo, originally published in April 1869 under the French title L'Homme qui rit. Also published under the title By Order of the King. Although among Hugo's most obscure works, it was adapted into a popular 1928 film, directed by Paul Leni and starring Conrad Veidt, Mary Philbin and Olga Baclanova.



Hugo wrote The Man Who Laughs, or the Laughing Man, over a period of fifteen months while he was living in the Channel Islands, having been exiled from his native France because of the controversial political content of his previous novels. Hugo's working title for this book was On the King's Command, but a friend suggested The Man Who Laughs.

Plot summary

The first major character whom the reader is introduced to is a mountebank who dresses in bearskins and calls himself Ursus (Latin for "bear"). His only companion is a large domesticated wolf, whom Ursus has named Homo (Latin for “man”, in a pun over the Hobbesian saying "homo homini lupus"). Ursus lives in a caravan, which he conveys to holiday fairs and markets throughout southern England, where he sells folk remedies.

The action moves to an English sea coast, on the night of January 29, 1690. A group of wanderers, their identities left unrevealed to the reader, are urgently loading a ship for departure. A boy, ten years old, is among their company, but they leave him behind and cast off.

The desperate boy, barefoot and starving, wanders through a snowstorm and reaches a gibbet, where he finds the corpse of a hanged criminal. The dead man is wearing shoes: utterly worthless to him now, yet precious to this boy. In the meantime, the wanderers' ship sinks after a long struggle with the sea in the English Channel. After walking some more, the boy finds a ragged woman, frozen to death. He is about to move onward when he hears a sound within the woman's garments: He discovers an infant girl, barely alive, clutching the woman's breast. Hugo's narrative describes a single drop of frozen milk, resembling a pearl, suspended from the dead woman's nipple.

Although the boy's survival seems unlikely, he now takes possession of the infant in an attempt to keep her alive. The girl's eyes are sightless and clouded, and he understands that she is blind. In the snowstorm, he encounters an isolated caravan, the domicile of Ursus.

The action shifts forward 15 years, to England during the reign of Queen Anne. Duchess Josiana, a spoiled and jaded peeress (and illegitimate daughter of King James II), is bored by the dull routine of court. Her lover, David Dirry-Moir, the illegitimate son of a proscribed baron, tells the duchess that the only cure for her boredom is "Gwynplaine", although he does not divulge who or what this Gwynplaine might be.

Ursus is now 15 years older. The wolf Homo is still alive too, although the narration admits that his fur is greyer. Gwynplaine is the abandoned boy, now 25 years old and matured to well-figured manhood. In a flashback, during the first encounter between Ursus and Gwynplaine, the boy is clutching the nearly-dead infant, and Ursus is outraged that the boy appears to be laughing. When the boy insists that he is not laughing, Ursus takes another look, and is horrified. The boy's face has been mutilated into a clown's mask, his mouth carved into a perpetual grin. The boy tells Ursus that his name is Gwynplaine; this is the only name he has ever known.

The foundling girl, now sixteen years old, has been christened Dea (Latin for "goddess"). Dea is blind but beautiful and utterly virtuous. She is also in love with Gwynplaine, as she is able to witness his kindly nature without seeing his hideous face. When Dea attempts to "see" Gwynplaine by passing her sightless fingers across his face, she assumes that he must always be happy because he is perpetually smiling. They fall in love.

Ursus and his two surrogate children earn a bare living in the fairs and carnivals of southern England. Everywhere they travel, Gwynplaine keeps the lower half of his face concealed. He is now the principal wage-earner of their retinue; in each town they visit, Gwynplaine gives a stage performance; the chief feature of this performance is that the crowds are invariably provoked to laughter when Gwynplaine reveals his grotesque face.

At one point, Ursus and Gwynplaine are readying for a performance when Ursus directs Gwynplaine's attention to a man who strides purposefully past their fairgrounds, dressed in ceremonial garments and bearing an elaborate wooden staff. Ursus explains that this man is the Wapentake, a servant of the Crown. ("Wapentake" is an Old English word meaning "weapon-touch".) Whomever the Wapentake touches with his staff has been summoned by the monarch and must go to wherever the Wapentake leads, upon pain of death.

Josiana attends one of Gwynplaine's performances, and is sensually aroused by the combination of his virile grace and his facial deformity. Gwynplaine, too, is aroused by Josiana's physical beauty and haughty demeanor. Suddenly, the Wapentake arrives at the caravan and touches Gwynplaine with his staff, compelling the disfigured man to follow him to the court of Queen Anne. Gwynplaine is ushered to a dungeon in London, where a physician named Hardquannone is being tortured to death. Hardquannone recognizes the deformed Gwynplaine, and identifies him as the boy whose abduction and disfigurement Hardquannone arranged twenty-three years earlier.

In the year 1682, in the reign of James II, one of the king's enemies was Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, Marquis of Corleone and a baron in the House of Lords, who had remained faithful to the English republic and had emigrated to Switzerland. Upon the baron's death, the king arranged the abduction of his two-year-old son and legitimate heir: Fermain, heir to his estates. The King sold Fermain to a band of wanderers called "the Comprachicos". David Dirry-Moir is the illegitimate son of Lord Linnaeus, but now that Fermain is known to be alive, the heritage once promised by the King to David on the condition of his future marriage to Josiana will instead belong to Fermain.

The word "Comprachicos" is Hugo's invention, based on the Spanish for "child-buyers".[1] They make their living by mutilating and disfiguring children, who are then forced to beg for alms, or who are exhibited as carnival freaks. On the King's command, the two-year-old Fermain is sold to them and disfigured.

It becomes clear that, after renaming Fermain Gwynplaine, the Comprachicos kept him in their possession until they abandoned him eight years later in 1690, on the night when he found Dea. Their ship was lost in the storm at sea, with all hands, but, in their repentance before death, they wrote out a signed confession and cast this adrift in a sealed flask, which now has belatedly come to the attention of Queen Anne.

Dea is saddened by Gwynplaine's protracted absence. Ursus and his band are falsely told that Gwynplaine is now dead. Dea has always been frail, but now she withers away even more. The authorities condemn them to exile for illegally using a wolf in their shows.

Gwynplaine accidentally meets Josiana, having been brought into her palace by her confidant, the intriguer Barkilphedro. At first she nearly seduces him, perversely excited by his deformity. However, she then receives a letter containing the Queen's order to marry him (as a replacement for David and the legitimate Lord Clancharie) and therefore violently rejects him as a lover, while accepting him as her (formal) husband.

Gwynplaine is now formally instated as Lord Fermain Clancharlie, Marquis of Corleone. In a grotesque scene, he is dressed in the elaborate robes and ceremonial wig of investiture, and commanded to take his seat in the House of Lords. But, when the deformed Gwynplaine addresses his peers with a fiery speech against the gross inequality of the age, the other lords are provoked to laughter by Gwynplaine's clownish features. After the end of the session, David defends him and challenges a dozen Lords to a duel, but then he also challenges Gwynplaine to a duel for having chastised David's mother for having become the mistress of Charles II after having been the lover of his own father, Lord Linnaeus.

Gwynplaine renounces his peerage and returns to the caravan of Ursus, and to the only family he has ever known. At first he cannot find them and nearly commits suicide out of grief. Then he manages to find them and board their ship bound for the continent in the last minute. Dea is delighted that Gwynplaine has returned to her. She reveals her passion to Gwynplaine, and then she abruptly dies. Gwynplaine then walks, as though in a trance to the edge of the ship, speaking to Dea, and with the reflection of a distant light in his eyes, though the sky is starless. He throws himself into the water, and is thus reunited with Dea in death. When Ursus, who has fainted in Dea's last moments, comes to his senses, Gwynplaine has vanished, and Homo is staring mournfully over the ship's rail, howling into the sea from which Gwynplaine will not return.

In other media


See The Man Who Laughs (film) for the full list of film adaptations.


  • Clair de Lune, a stage play written by Blanche Oelrichs under her male pseudonym Michael Strange, which ran for 64 performances on Broadway from April to June 1921. Oelrichs/Strange made some extremely arbitrary changes to the story, such as altering the protagonist's name to “Gwymplane”. The play features some very contrived and stilted dialogue, and would probably never have been produced if not for the fact that Oelrichs's husband at this time was the famed actor John Barrymore, who agreed to play Gwymplane and persuaded his sister Ethel Barrymore to portray Queen Anne. The ill-starred drama was dismissed as a vanity production, indulged by Barrymore purely to give his wife some credibility as playwright “Michael Strange”. The review by theatre critic James Whittaker of the Chicago Tribune was headlined “For the Love of Mike!”
  • In 2005, The Stolen Chair Theatre Company recreated the story as a "Silent film for the stage." This adaptation pulled equally from Hugo's novel, the 1927 Hollywood Silent film, and from the creative minds of Stolen Chair. Stolen Chair's collectively created adaptation was staged as a live silent film, with stylized movement, original musical accompaniment, and projected intertitles. Gwynplaine was brought to life by Jon Campbell and was joined by Jennifer Wren, Alexia Vernon, Dennis Wit and Cameron J. Oro. It played in NY to critical acclaim and has been published in the book, Playing with Cannons.
  • In 2006 the original story was adapted into musical by Alexandr Tumencev (composer) and Tatyana Ziryanova (Russian lyrics) and entitled 'Man Who Laughs' ('Человек, который смеётся'). This musical adaptation is performed by the Theatre of musical "Seventh Morning" starting from November, 6.


  • In May 1950, the Gilberton publishing company produced a comic-book adaptation of The Man Who Laughs as part of their prestigious Classics Illustrated series. This adaptation featured artwork by Alex A. Blum, much of it closely resembling the 1928 film (including the anachronistic Ferris wheel). The character of Gwynplaine is drawn as a handsome young man, quite normal except for two prominent creases at the sides of his mouth. As this comic book was intended for juvenile readers, there may have been an intentional editorial decision to minimise the appearance of Gwynplaine's disfigurement. A revised Classics Illustrated edition, with a more faithful script by Al Sundel, and a painted cover and new interior art by Norman Nodel, was issued in the spring of 1962. Nodel's artwork showed a Gwynplaine far more disfigured than the character's appearance in either the 1928 film or the 1950 Classics edition.
  • A second comic book version was produced by artist Fernando de Felipe, published by S. I. ARTISTS and republished by Heavy Metal Magazine in 1994. This adaptation was intended for a mature audience and places more emphasis on the horrific elements of the story. De Felipe has simplified and taken some liberties with Hugo's storyline. His rendering emphasizes the grotesque in Hugo and excludes the elements of the sublime that are equally important in the original.


Hugo's Romantic novel "The Man Who Laughs" places its narrative in 17th century England, where the relationships between the bourgeoisie and aristocracy are complicated by continual distancing from the lower class. Hugo's protagonist, Gwynplaine (a physically transgressive figure, something of a monster) transgresses these societal spheres by being reinstated from the lower class into the aristocracy—a movement which enabled Hugo to critique construction of social identity based upon class status. Stallybrass and White's "The sewer, the Gaze and the Contaminating Touch" addresses several of the class theories regarding narrative figures transgressing class boundaries—Gwynplaine specifically can be seen to be the supreme embodiment of Stallybrass and White's "rat" analysis, meaning that Hugo's protagonist is in essence a sliding signifier.

Allusions and references from other works

  • In 1869, while living in Buffalo, New York, Mark Twain published a parody of L'Homme qui Rit in the Buffalo Express newspaper. The parody attempted to offer parallels between Gwynplaine and Andrew Johnson, the scandal-plagued President of the United States at that time. The parody was not a success, and is of minor interest only because of its author's later prominence.
  • In 1940, comic book artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger used Gwynplaine's lanky physique and grotesque grin as the visual inspiration for the Joker, Batman's archenemy. There the similarity ends, however; Gwynplaine is an embittered hero, while the Joker is a psychopathic criminal.
    In the 1970s, Bob Kane acknowledged the inspiration for the Joker, and it was later explicitly referenced in the graphic novel, Batman: The Man Who Laughs. Comic book artist Brian Bolland said that watching The Man Who Laughs was one of his inspirations for drawing the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). In the episode "Wild Cards" of the Justice League animated series (2003), The Joker infiltrated a TV station by using the alias "Gwynplaine Entertainment."
  • In a 2011 issue of Batman and Robin, writer David Hine introduced a deformed French supervillain named the Man Who Laughs. His backstory states that his father, a fan of classic art and literature, carved a smile onto his face as an intentional homage to Hugo's novel.[2]
  • Gwynplaine's physical appearance may have inspired "Sardonicus", a story by Ray Russell published in Playboy in 1961. This gothic horror tale describes a man who has experienced a shock so terrifying that he undergoes a medical condition called Risus sardonicus, in which his face is permanently paralyzed into an exaggerated grin. Russell's story was filmed that same year as Mr. Sardonicus, a low-budget horror film by William Castle, featuring one of the gimmicks for which that producer was famous: halting the projection of the movie a few minutes before it ended, ostensibly so that the audience could vote on whether Sardonicus would live or die. Allegedly, the projectionist had two different endings available, and would screen the one reflecting the audience's verdict. In reality, however, only one ending was ever filmed or shown, with Sardonicus starving to death, his handicap preventing him from eating.
  • The novelist and essayist Ayn Rand adapted Hugo's term “Comprachicos” for her own purposes in a noted essay, published in The Objectivist in 1970. Rand used the term “Comprachicos” to designate various forces in society which — either through well-meaning ignorance or outright malice — distort and deform children's souls and minds in an attempt to force them into social conformity. She considered The Man Who Laughs to be Hugo's best novel.
  • Pinball, a 1982 novel credited to Jerzy Kosinski, features a female character named Andrea Gwynplaine. Journalist and author F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre made an unverified claim to have ghost-written portions of Pinball and inserted the name “Gwynplaine” into the text of Pinball as a clue to his participation.
  • In James Ellroy's book The Black Dahlia, the mutilation murder of Elizabeth Short is partially inspired by a painting of Gwynplaine. The painting ends up being one of the major clues in solving the murder.

In the movie "The Black Dahlia" (2006), "The Man who laughs" is a movie co-produced by a relative of the supposed killer, who also used the movie's set to stage a pornographic movie featuring the victim, Elizabeth Short, thereby jumbling the book, the original movie, the porno, and real life in a murderous mixture.

  • A short story by the name of The Laughing Man is featured in J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. It appears to be influenced by The Man Who Laughs, featuring an individual facially disfigured in his childhood by criminals who have kidnapped him.
  • In the 2008 movie The Dark Knight the character The Joker appears to take a more direct influence physically from Gwynplaine, as his permanent grin appears to be caused by a mutilation to his face.
  • In H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau, Moreau refers to L'Homme qui Rit when explaining the nature of his experiments to the protagonist.
  • In the new Rob Zombie album, Hellbilly Deluxe 2, the last song is titled "The Man Who Laughs" and is based on the story of the same name.


  1. ^ Kaiser, John Boynton (July 1913). "The Comprachicos". Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology (Northwestern University) 4 (2): 247–264. doi:10.2307/1133105. JSTOR 1133105. "The word Comprachicos was coined by Hugo; so much is established" 
  2. ^ Batman and Robin #26 (August 2011)

External links

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