Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Man Who Laughs - Victor Hugo

First published in April 1869, Victor Hugo wrote this novel while he was exiled in the Channel Islands. The title might suggest the novel was a comedy, but the story is actually tragic and sad. The cruelty of men seems to have no limit.

10-year-old Gwynplaine was abandoned at an English seaside on a winter night. On his way to find food and warmth, he stumbled into a baby girl, who had been buried in the snow with her mother. The mother died. Gwynplaine and the baby then were picked up by an old wandering philosopher named Ursus, who lived with his tamed wolf named Homo.

Only in the next morning, Ursus could take a good look at the boy's face. He asked him:
'What are you laughing about?'
The boy answered, 'I am not laughing.'
Ursus felt a kind of shock, looked at him fixedly for a few minutes, and said, 'Then you are frightful.' He placed the palms of his hands on the boy's shoulders and, examining his countenance more and more piercingly, exclaimed, "Do not laugh any more!'
'I am not laughing,' said the child.
Ursus was seized with a sudder from head to foot. 'You do laugh, I tell you.'
Then seizing the child with a grasp which would have been one of fury had it not been one of pity, he asked him roughly, 'Who did that to you?'
The child replied, 'I don't know what you mean.'
'How long have you had that laugh?'
'I have always been thus,' said the child.

What had happened to Gwynplaine's face?
It seemed evident that a mysterious and probably occult science, which was to surgery what alchemy was to chemistry, had chiselled his flesh, evidently at a very tender age, and manufactured his countenance with premeditation. That science, clever with the knife, skilled in obtusions and ligatures, had enlarged the mouth, cut away the lips, laid bare the gums, distended the ears, cut the cartilages, displaced the eyelids and the cheeks, enlarged the zygomatic muscle, pressed the scars and cicatrices to a level, turned back the skin over the lesions whilst the face was thus stretched, from all which resulted that powerful and profound piece of sculpture, the mask, Gwynplaine.

Illustration by Daniel Vierge.
The upper part shows the performance in the Green Box.
The lower part shows the people who had abandoned little Gwynplaine, sinking with their ship
Fifteen years later, Ursus and his little group became successful performers. Gwynplaine was their star. Everybody who saw his face compelled to laugh. The baby girl had become a beautiful young girl, but blind. Her name was Dea. Gwynplaine and Dea loved each other. Gwynplaine believed that Dea loved him because she couldn't see his deformed face. "He fancied that to allow a woman who could not see him to love him was to deceive her."

One day he said to Dea, 'You know that I am very ugly.'
'I know that you are sublime,' she answered.
He resumed, 'When you hear all the world laugh, they laugh at me because I am horrible.'
'I love you,' said Dea.
After a silence, she added, 'I was in death, you brought me to life. When you are here, heaven is by my side. Give me your hand, that I may touch heaven.'

Ursus, Homo and their little hut
Following the success of their performances, Ursus brought the little group to London. Here it was that Gwynplaine saw a duchess, among the audience, who stared at his face and later sent a letter to him, asking him to meet her. It was the first time a woman, who was not blind, who could see his face, took an interest of him. After give this a serious consideration, Gwynplaine decided to stay by Dea's side.

Then something happened. Gwynplaine was picked up by a servant of the Crown. He didn't come back for two days and Ursus thought he was dead. Ursus took Homo and Dea, and left London.

What happened was, Gwynplaine became a peer of England. His real name was Lord Fermain Clancharlie, Baron Clancharlie and Hunkerville, Marquis of Corleone in Sicily. He was the only legitimate son of Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, the inheritor of his estates and titles. For the same reason he was sold at the age of two, mutilated, disfigured, and put out of the way.

In the two days, Gwynplaine met his fiancée, Duchess Josiana; the very same who had seen him in a performance and then written to him. The duchess only wanted him as a lover because he was very ugly, but she didn't want him as a husband.
He gave a speech in the House of Lords, thinking he could be 'the Word of the people.' They only laughed at him.
It is fine to speak for the dumb, but to speak to the deaf is sad.

Gwynplaine by Georges Rochegrosse
He had trafficked with Providence at a loss. For an income of £80,000 a year, for seven or eight titles, for ten or twelve palaces, for houses in town and castles in the country, for a hundred lackeys, for packs of hounds and carriages and armorial bearings, to be a judge and legislator, for a coronet and purple robes like a king, to be a baron and a marquis, to be a peer of England; he had given the hut of Ursus and the smile of Dea. For shipwreck and destruction in the surging immensity of greatness, he had bartered happiness. For the ocean he had given the pearl.

Gwynplaine left the House of Lords and returned to where he had last seen Ursus and Dea; and found nothing. They had left. Just when he was about to commit suicide, Homo came and led the way to the ship where Ursus and Dea had been.

Victor Hugo could have made this story end with a happy ending if he wanted. However, Dea was gravely ill. What illness it was not clear, but she was dying. 'There then rose to her lips a red froth, which Ursus wiped away with the fold of her robe, before Gwynplaine, who was prostrate at her feet, could see it.'

She was dead and Gwynplaine, who could not live without her, stepped into the sea.
Where was she, the star? Dea! Alas! he had lost her light. Take away the star and what is the sky? A black mass.

Looked like Gwynplaine than Gavroche (to me)

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