J.'s Reviews > Laughing Man, The

Laughing Man, The by Victor Hugo
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's review
Feb 05, 2012

really liked it
Read from July 14 to October 21, 2010

I’d read Hunchback as a boy and enjoyed it; but I hadn’t read Hugo for nearly forty years. I was intrigued by the premise The Man Who Laughs.

Two-year-old Fermain is sold to Comprachicos—a Hugo invention based on the Spanish word for child-buyers, who mutilate his face into that of a perpetually laughing clown and force him to exhibit himself for money as a carnival freak. He is abandoned eight years later and, while wandering through a snowstorm, happens across the corpse of a frozen woman clutching a nearly dead infant girl. Fermain rescues the infant and, later that night, is taken in by Ursus, a traveling mountebank.

Flash forward a few years. Ursus and company now put on a traveling show, with Fermain, now known as Gwynplaine, in the lead heroic role. The infant—Ursus bestows upon her the moniker, Dea, the Greek word for “goddess.” Dea has become a teen and, blind, has come to love Gwynplaine, who returns her love; it is a love pure of heart. Yet he knows that if Dea could see him she would abhor him for his appearance.

Enter Duchess Josiana, a spoiled and jaded peeress, and illegitimate daughter of King James II. Bored by the dull routine of court, see witnesses one of Gwyplaine’s performances and professes her desire for him. However, it is a perverse desire, a sort fetish. Yet Gwynplaine is taken by the beautiful Josiana, driven by his hormones.

Gwynplaine’s true heritage is discovered. He is the legitimate child of Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, Marquis of Corleone and a baron in the House of Lords. Upon Clancharlie’s death, Gwynplaine becomes heir to his estates, but with tragic results.

Although among Hugo’s most obscure works, Hugo wrote The Man Who Laughs, or the Laughing Man, over a period of fifteen months while living in the Channel Islands, having been exiled from his native France because of the controversial political content of his previous novels.

A melodrama, The Man Who Laughs is not an easy read. Written in the style of the period, it is heavy on narrative, and the story is “told” more than it is “shown.” The translation I read, by James Hogarth, is a poor translation. Still, The Man Who Laughs holds a rightful place as a masterpiece of the period and is worth the read.

Five stars for the original content, I rate it four stars for the poor translation.
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