“The Man Who Laughs”, analysis of the novel by Victor Hugo

One of the most famous novels of Victor Hugo was created in the sixties of the XIX century and published in April 1869. In it, the French writer raised several important universal and social issues related to the eternal themes of life and death, spiritual love and bodily passion, truth and lies, an insurmountable abyss that exists between a beggar, a suffering people and endowed with wealth and the power of nobility.

The scene of the novel is England (Portland, the village of Waimet, the town of Melcombe Regis, other small rural cities of the country, London). Time of action – the end of the XVII – the beginning of the XVIII century. The chronotope of the novel is determined by the vagrant character of the main characters – the figs, giving a presentation at the beginning in a tiny carriage, and then in a huge theater on wheels called “The Green Box”. The main part of the work takes place in two space-time planes: in the area of the Portland Plateau, on the bank of which a ten-year-old ugly boy was left on January 29, 1690, in London, in the winter and spring of 1705, when the twenty-five-year-old Gwynplaine learns the secret of his birth, eternal laughter and meaning of life.

All of the characters in the novel are the main ones (the philosopher Ursus, who grew up with Gwynplaine, is the blind girl of Day, the half brother of the “man who laughs” is Lord David Dirry-Moir, the Duchess of Joziana, the former lackey of James II, the uncorker of the ocean bottles Barquiltfedro), and the secondary ones (comprachicoos from Matukin, the people watching the performances from the Green Box, the nobility and the employees of the House of Lords are connected to each other through the character of the central hero – Gwynplaine / Lord Fermen Clencharly, a peer of England.

“The man who laughs,” as he himself admits to the English lords, is a terrifying symbol of violence, perpetrated every second by the nobility over the rest of humanity. “I am the people … I am the reality … I am the Man. The dreaded “Man Who Laughs,” says Gwynplaine about himself. “Laughing at whom? Over you. Above oneself. It should be all.

Gwynplaine’s eternal laughter has a physical nature. Ursus’ constant irony stems from his inner moral attitudes: familiar with numerous philosophical treatises and the realities of the life around him, the hero does nothing but grumbles at the world. He “praises” lords, whose descriptions of riches are filled with his carriage, and “scolds” poor children who have decided to deprive him of dinner, children whom he will take not for one cold winter evening, but for his whole life death itself.

Gwynplaine’s life story is tragic from start to finish. Being the legitimate son of his father,  Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, after the death of his parents, he, on the orders of King James II, was stripped of the title and handed over to comprachicos, a community of vagrants, selling children previously disfigured for fair shows. After the ascension to the throne of William III, who began the persecution of traffickers in children, the boy is abandoned in the bay of Portland.

According to all the laws of the realistic genre, in which, according to many literary critics, the novel “The Man Who Laughs” was written, the child should have died. But here the higher (romantic) providence intervenes, under which Hugo deduces nature (and in fact God), and the boy not only survives, but also saves the nine-month-old girl from death. Continuous dangers accompany the child’s life – cold (the action takes place in one of the coldest European winters), fear (meeting with the smuggler’s corpse), death (crossing the thin Portland isthmus and constant threat to be either at sea or in the ocean) hunger, fatigue, human indifference. Gwynplaine overcomes everything, acquiring in the end – a house (not too big, but warm and cozy), a family (alien by blood, but related in spirit), fame (at the fair level), money (enough not to starve oneself and feed Dea  and Ursus  with Homo ), love.

The theme of love in the novel is revealed in two aspects: romantic — Gwynplaine and Dea’s love (pure, sublime, spiritual) and realistic — physical pull that exists between Gwynplaine and Josian (passionate, bodily, animal). The character of Josiana is contrasted with the image of Dea: unlike a blind girl, a beautiful, fragile, bright, duchess looks majestic in her beauty, desired by a woman who is in full physical health. To Gwynplaine, she is pulled by an inner perversion that is adjacent to Josiana with physical innocence. The girl dreams of giving her virginity to the lowest person in the world, thus rising above the high society she despises and ending with satiety and boredom.

From the moral fall of Gwynplaine protects all the same higher providence, fifteen years worn by sea a bottle with a sealed in her recognition komprachikosov. The exaltation of the hero becomes a turning point and the final stage of his life. Becoming a lord, Gwynplaine in one day faces all possible temptations – pride, vanity, lust, oblivion (past life), betrayal of his loved ones (fleeting, but no less acute). Having the opportunity to convey to the powerful people the truth about the suffering people, he cannot fully realize his peer status because of the physical deformity that makes others laugh, and some tongue-tiedness due to the lack of speech practice of communication with the upper classes of society.

After the debate in the House of Lords, only his stepbrother David, who knows the popular environment in which he turns in the guise of sailor Tom-Jim-Jack, takes the side of Gwynplaine. At the same time, supporting the ideas put forward by the figure, he, in a rush to defend his good name and the name of his family, invites not only young lords, but also a newly found brother to a duel.

Struck by the baseness of high society, Gwynplaine (in the literal sense of the word) runs downstairs and, not finding the Green Box in the previous place, immediately realizes what he has lost. His real name and life turned out to be a lie; his ugly smile and the game of the figrue are true. As Ursus predicted, true happiness for Gwynplaine was always Dea, seeing his kind heart and loving him for himself. The death of Gwynplaine and Dea puts an end to their relationship – not having a bodily development on earth, but endlessly striving into the divine cosmos.

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