The Man Who Laughs  

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French: À qui vit de fiction, la vérité est infecte. Qui a soif de flatterie revomit le réel, bu par surprise.
English: To him who lives on fiction, the truth is vile. He who thirsts for flattery vomits back up the real when drunk by mistake. --Victor Hugo, L'Homme qui rit (1869)[1]

"Again he saw her, and saw her terrible in power. His breath came in short catches. He felt as if he were in a storm-driven cloud. He looked. This woman before him! Was it possible? At the theatre a duchess; here a nereid, a nymph, a fairy. Always an apparition. He tried to fly, but felt the futility of the attempt. His eyes were riveted on the vision, as though he were bound. Was she a woman? Was she a maiden? Both. Messalina was perhaps present, though invisible, and smiled, while Diana kept watch." --Gwynplaine on seeing Duchess Josiana in the nude

"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 more similar to Hannibal Lecter. 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)." --Sholem Stein

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Man Who Laughs is a novel by Victor Hugo, originally published in April 1869 under the French title L'Homme qui Rit. Although among Hugo's more obscure works, it was adapted into a popular 1928 film, directed by Paul Leni and starring Conrad Veidt and Olga Baclanova. The Man Who Laughs is a horror story of a young aristocrat kidnapped and disfigured by his captors to display a permanent grin.



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 due to 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 we meet 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”). 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 a sea coast somewhere on the European continent, on the night of January 29, 1690. Hugo sets this date precisely, but nowhere in the narrative does he link it to any specific real-world historical event. A group of men, their identities unknown to us, are urgently lading a ship for departure. A boy, ten years old, is among their company … but the men are anxious to be rid of him. While the boy desperately pleads not to be abandoned, the men 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. Beneath the gibbet, the boy finds a ragged woman, frozen to death. The boy 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. We meet the Duchess Josiana, a spoiled and jaded peeress who is bored by the dull routine of court. A courtier tells the duchess that the only cure for her boredom is “Gwynplaine”, although he does not divulge who or what this Gwynplaine might be.

Now we are reunited with the wanderers. Ursus is 15 years older now. Surprisingly, 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 crude flashback, we witness the first encounter between Ursus and Gwynplaine. The boy is clutching a nearly-dead infant, and therefore 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 has grown older too. Now fifteen years old, she has been christened Dea (Latin for “goddess”), presumably by Ursus. 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 disfigured countenance, 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 funfairs 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 their next 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. Hugo makes it clear that Josiana's feelings towards Gwynplaine are erotic and sexual. Gwynplaine, too, is aroused by the physical beauty and haughty demeanour of this sensuous woman.

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 recognises 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. The king arranged the baron's abduction and murder. The baron, already widowed, left a two-year-old son: Fermain, heir to his estates. With the king's approval, Hardquannone gave this helpless boy to a band of wanderers called “the Comprachicos”.

“Comprachicos”: this word is Hugo's invention, based on the Spanish for “child-buyers”. They make their living by mutilating and disfiguring children, who are then forced to beg for alms, or who are exhibited as carnival freaks. Although Hugo coined the word “Comprachicos”, there are many documented real-life cases in Europe and Asia of itinerant surgeons who deliberately mutilated children (and sometimes adults) into freaks to be exhibited in carnivals or employed as the deformed servants of some eccentric nobleman.

It becomes clear that, after disfiguring the two-year-old Fermain and renaming him 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 one passenger considerately wrote out a 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. Dea has always been frail, but now she withers away even more.

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 attempts to address his peers — now his peers in the literal sense — the other lords are provoked to laughter by Gwynplaine's clownish features.

Gwynplaine renounces his peerage and returns to the caravan of Ursus, and to the only family he has ever known. Dea is delighted that Gwynplaine has returned to her. The four friends (including Homo) cast off aboard a vessel to the continent, resolved to abandon England forever. During the voyage, while Ursus slumbers, Dea reveals her passion to Gwynplaine, and then she abruptly dies. When Ursus awakens, Gwynplaine has vanished, and Homo is staring mournfully over the ship's rail, into the open sea.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

There have been several dramatic adaptations of The Man Who Laughs. These include:


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


  • 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 1948, 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 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 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. However, the imagery is beautiful and dramatic; if fidelity to the original is not considered as a criterion, this is a beautifully drawn and well-executed version.

Allusions/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 more similar to Hannibal Lecter.
    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."
  • 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 paralysed 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. As there is no parallel between Kosinski's novel and Hugo's, it was not immediately clear why this character was so oddly named. After Kosinski's death, it was determined that at least two uncredited “ghost writers” made substantial contributions to this novel and other works credited to Kosinski: one of those uncredited co-authors was journalist F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, who had previously named himself after Hugo's protagonist, and who 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 the one of the major clues in solving the murder.
  • The Beast Below, an episode of Highlander: The Series, features an unusually strong though mentally handicapped Immortal named Ursa, who dresses with animal fur.
  • The antagonist in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a master hacker under self-imposed exile, is known as The Laughing Man. He never gave this title to himself, but it likely came about because of the icon he chooses to hide his face: an ever-smiling logo circled by the words "I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes." This is a quote from Catcher in the Rye, which also factors heavily into the narrative.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Man Who Laughs" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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