L’Homme qui rit or The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo is a strange novel. Full of irony, sarcasm, symbolism, and hidden messages, it left me thinking about it long after I finished it. I still cannot make up my mind whether I like it or not.
The Man Who Laughs
or should we say the man who cries, the man who condemns, the man who criticizes, the man who laughs, the man who suffers, the man who grows. Many more can be said about the main character of the novel, Gwynplaine. As a child, he becomes a victim of a group called the Comprachicos (a word invented by Victor Hugo referring to child buyers). These criminals steal children and transform them into carnaval freaks, whose only purpose is to amuse and entertain the aristocratic English society. Gwynplaine has a grotesque face, which provokes laughter amongst the people, who see him. The boy is left as a little child and is grown up by the charlatan Ursus (latin for bear) and his wolf Homo (latin for man). Here Hugo demonstrates a great play of words, which I am going to discuss a bit later. The three of them, together with the blind orphan Dea, earn their living by performing on carnavals and fun fairs around England. Until Gwynplaine discovers he is the long lost son of a lord, an enemy of the king. The latter ordered the severe transformation of the boy as a revenge to his father. Now Gwynplaine enters a different world; he moves up the social caste, from a poor travelling performer to a wealthy and powerful member of the English aristocracy.
The Man Who Laughs was written during Hugo’s fifteen months exile in the UK due to his political beliefs. Through the character of Gwynplaine, the author condemns the current caste system in England. Victor Hugo is a well known socialist and idealist; he preaches democracy and social equality, an ideal which has transformed him from a well known romantic poet to a politically engaged individual. Still, the plot is typical for the Romanticism – unbelievable events, complicated situations, secret conspiracy, all around Gwynplaine and Dea’s unearthly and sublime love story. Gwynplaine passes from the lowest to the highest social class to realize the immense injustice in the English political system – the poor are very poor and the rich are very rich. The latter explore the first, who suffer and die on the streets. Hugo’s disappointment with a world, where democracy and freedom cannot exist is highly evident in his novel.
To be honest, I started reading The Man Who Laughs two times before I managed to finish it. The reason – Hugo’s EXTENSIVE descriptions. I had to CAPS LOCK this word because it is very typical for the French romanticist’s way of writing. More than 1/3 of the novel is devoted to the norms and habits of the English aristocracy, which, although valuable to know, I found a bit boring and excessive. Thus, I was slightly tempted to skip pages (which I honestly didn’t do) or to leave the novel for yet another time. I managed to finish it and I was really glad. The Man Who Laughs is worth reading because it demonstrates a view of social equality and freedom, which although highly idealistic, is desirable. What’s more, Hugo’s style (excluding the descriptions of course) is enthralling without being too serious. If you have been a religious reader of my blog, you might have deduced I like a bit of irony and sarcasm in the works I read. Even if they discuss urgent and pressing issues.
Another bonus of the novel is the extensive use of symbolism and word play. Take Ursus (bear) and Homo (man). The fact that the animal is named after the human, and the human after the animal, says a lot about Hugo’s pessimistic view of contemporary society but I will leave the actual interpretation to each and everyone of you, through your own social and moral prism. Sadly, even an idealist, the author sees that his ideas are not applicable to the current political and social system. His exile to the UK is though a proof that Hugo stays strongly behind his views and is ready to defend them. Using literature as a main weapon of course.