Gwynplaine is not your normal guy. Sure, he was a child slave who was abandoned by his owners when he was yet young. Sure, he adopted a dying infant when he had no family of his own. Sure, he now lives with a misanthrope playwright who would prefer to talk to his wolf than another human. That’s a little out of the ordinary. Still, what is really different, what everyone notices about him, is his face: a cruel, lasting trick of his owners, setting his face into an eternal laugh. Of course, his face sets a stark contrast with his life. He tries to make the best of it, but it’s not easy. The infant he adopted, lovingly named Dea, is now blind. The three of them (Gwynplaine, Dea, and the playwright, Ursus) barely scrape by on the cash they bring in from Ursus’ plays. Unfortunately, after suffering through a miserable life for twenty some years, Gwynplaine is facing an even more difficult issue: one of the heart. For all of his life, he has been in love with Dia. Now, against all odds, Gwynplaine discovers he is the son of a Lord. Rightful husband of beautiful Duchess Josiana (who also loves him), he is given the chance to use his newfound power to fight for the poor. Yet, to do all of that, he must give up Dea. A chance to do what is right, or a chance for love. The choice is no laughing matter.
Victor Hugo is best known for the epic scale of his novels (The Hunchback of Notre Dame); the vast, sometimes unnecessary, depth he gives to his characters and plots (Les Miserables); and his social commentary (The Last Day of a Condemned Man, which Dostoevsky considered a masterpiece). This book combines all three aspects, sometimes to a fault. While this novel has nowhere near the broad scope of Hunchback, Hugo still manages to weave a tapestry of plots and characters. Indeed, this book, unlike any other, required a second reading just to understand why Hugo spent so much time on a shipwreck or on Britain’s political interest in messages-in-a-bottle. Honestly, there are multiple places where this book could have been trimmed, as sections add very little to the overall plot or even to character depth. Oddly, despite spending a great many pages on various characters, only two or three characters ever feel truly fleshed out. Others give long monologues or take center stage for certain sections, yet feel one note.
The greatest strength of this story is its themes. Hugo pulls no punches. As a result of Gwynplaine’s certain political position, Hugo has a great chance to make commentary on the politics of bygone days. Indeed, it is in this commentary that Hugo pulls out a good deal of snark. He snidely comments that a character must be mad indeed, for he actually thought that the common person deserved a decent life. More seriously, though, near the end of the novel Gwynplaine challenges the entirety of the monarchical political system, calling out the elite for their treatment of the poor. For a moment, it seems that mere ignorance has driven this travesty of justice. Then, it is revealed (almost slapped in the reader’s face) that the poor exist not out of the ignorance of the rich, but out of their apathy. It is damning commentary on historical British society, and perhaps a wakeup call for modern society as well.
The ugliness of Gwynplaine also offers more subtle commentary on society’s view of people. The beautiful are praised, despite their lack of scruples or intelligence. Gwynplaine has a truly generous and compassionate heart. Yet, because of his horrible laugh, no one in society ever views him as anything other than a monster. This theme is quite subtle, yet Hugo places is there for the attentive reader to chew on.
Ultimately, this is another one of those books over which I am torn. The themes are rich and the story is fascinating. The 1928 film adaptation was even an inspiration for the look of the Joker from Batman. Yet, at times the theme and the background information overpower the story so much as to make it difficult to follow. The book is rewarding, though it is by no means easy or as good as it could be. Thus, if you are a classics nerd or a fan of Hugo, I would recommend it. Otherwise, you may find yourself turning away in disgust and boredom from Gwynplaine, The Man Who Laughs.
Published on 10 August, 2016. Last updated on