19th Century Literature and Culture
Freaks Shows and the Disfigured Views
in The Man Who Laughs
The attitude of an individual and of a society towards deformity is a cultural product informed by a particular value-system, even though we may expect to discover similarities across time and place. Modern investigations of human deformity identify two main categories of malformation, of which the less severe involves a defective or excessive number of body parts. A freak show is an exhibition of biological rarities, referred to as "freaks of nature." Typical features would be physically unusual humans, such as those uncommonly large or small, those with both male and female secondary sexual characteristics, people with other extraordinary diseases and conditions, and performances that are expected to be shocking to the viewers. Heavily tattooed or pierced people have sometimes been seen in freak shows, as have attention-getting physical performers such as fire-eating and sword-swallowing acts. During the 19th Century, “Freak Shows” and “oddities museums” advertizing these individuals became a commercial wide success. No longer were these people categorized as devils or cursed signs of ill-omen, but instead featured into a more curious eye.
Many artists of the 19th Century capitalized on this idea. Victor Hugo had more than once returned to this strategy of write-play to create his visually and metaphorically deep characters and drive his story. Similar to his political views, Hugo often focused on strong characters as a social commentary of the times to govern his writings. It is of no surprise that the author or The Hunchback of Notre Dame would not cease his controversial tellings.
Victor Hugo had at the time been exiled from France in 1855 because of his political stances when he wrote some of his best known works, and it can be said that this heavily influenced his writings at the time. Nearly forty years after his publication of The Hunchback, Hugo thrust himself into another politically social-heavy subject in his novel The Man Who Laughs in 1869.
The story’s focus is of that of a travelling band of sideshow performers. Ursus mans the show, acting as director, play writer, songwriter, designer and costumer maker. Ursus had initially been a one man show, travelling across Europe in the 16th century telling his tales and hurling his often broken philosophies into the general public. It wasn’t until he found the disfigured boy Gwynplaine and the blind baby Dea, that he began his journey as a travelling show. Gwynplaine is introduced as a poor misfortunate who was apprehended by the “Comprachicos.” Hugo coined this word as a travelling band of Gypsies that regularly took in and disfigured children in such a way that they could be sold back to the general public as curiosities and fools for the wealthy Lords. During a snowstorm, the Gypsies abandon Gwynplaine to die as they board a ship, which later becomes destroyed by the raging sea. Cold and brittle, Gwynplaine stumbles through the storm until he comes across a dead woman holding a crying infant. He and the babe eventually find shelter in Ursus’ caravan with his domesticated wolf Homo, where they are raised by him.
Gwynplaine fills the role as the “tragic hero.” Even though he is well kept for, his disfigurement leaves him wallowing in self pity and self-consciousness. He make s a living by performing with Ursus, his disfigurement— the stretching of his face in a permanent grin—making all who see him laugh at his comical appearance. His tragedy is his own feelings towards his own wretched appearance, and how he does not think himself worthy of the love of Dea, the blind girl. In this way, Gwynplaine shows striking similarities towards Quasimodo from Hugo’s earlier work. However, Gwynplaine does not show the same disdain towards man-kind for shunning him, nor does he hold any hatred or violence.
The role of Dea in the story is vastly different form the role of Esmeralda, the obsessive love of Quasimodo however. Dea is an innocent, pure hearted young woman as opposed to the rather vibrant and selfish gypsy Esmeralda. Dea’s blindness is a tool often used in literature as a physical representation of character traits. She is blind; therefore she is innocent of all the evils in the world. Juxtapose to Gwynplaine’s deformity, Dea is in love with him, but suffers from the same crippling insecurities. Despite their unwillingness to act upon their emotional entanglement, Gwynplaine and Dea are very attached to one another. Shows of Gwynplaine’s hesitation come into place whenever Dea tries to touch his face—Gwynplaine will always draw away, or cover his mouth so that she will not be able to feel his grotesqueness.
We follow Gwynplaine in his emotional journey through several acts of humiliation and emotional disturbance. While the general public view him as little more than a living freak and a clown, at one performance he gains the attention of a Duchess.
Lady Josiana is a character befitting the role of instigator. She portrayed as a lazy, selfish woman of wealth who is often spoiled and shows no interest in Sir David Dirry-Moir, the illegitimate son of a proscribed baron and to whom she has been engaged since infancy. In a very ironic move, Dirry-Moir tells Josiana her only cure for her boredom is to see the travelling freak Gwynplaine. Upon seeing the laughing guise of Gwynplaine perform, she becomes aroused by his virile grace and facial deformity. Gwynplaine is excited about the idea behind it—for never had anyone who had eyes ever looked at him with anything but ridicule. For certainly, if a woman as beautiful and wealthy as the Duchess Josiana could love him despite his face, surely he could come to terms and accept Dea’s love.
The climax of the novel begins with Gwynplaine is taken up by the wapontake, a servant of the crown. Another popular 19th Century tactic is employed upon their meeting. It is at this time that it is discovered that Gwynplain is taken to the dungeons to identify a criminal. The man, named Hardquannone, recognizes Gwynplaine’s horrid grin and admits to being the man who carved it on his face. 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, who had remained faithful to the English republic and had emigrated to Switzerland. Upon the baron's death, the king arranged the abduction of his two-year-old son and legitimate heir: Fermain, heir to his estates. The King sold Fermain to a band of wanderers called "the Comprachicos." David Dirry-Moir is the illegitimate son of Lord Linnaeus, but now that Fermain is known to be alive, the heritage once promised by the King to David on the condition of his future marriage to Josiana will instead belong to Fermain.
The political strife and outrage that spawns from this play a huge element in the commentary Hugo is trying to illustrate. Josiana, upon learning that she must wed Gwynplaine, utterly rejects him as a lover. 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 addresses his peers with a fiery speech against the gross inequality of the age, 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 reveals her passion to Gwynplaine, and then following the traditions of a good tragedy gothic-novel, she abruptly dies.
The Man Who Laughs was not made as popular as many of Victor Hugo’s other works, but it speaks no different from them in consideration of political and social posture. Hugo’s vision faithfully portrayed the role of the tragic hero, one that inspires both sympathy and compassion, as well as establishing compelling characterization. Similar plot devices have been scattered across the years by many different authors. Not only can similarities be drawn from Quasimodo, but we can go as far as to include characters such as Erik from Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera (1910), Beauty and the Beast and even the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
In modern times, The Man Who Laughs isn’t known by name too often, however, the face of Gwynplaine will forever be iconographical for the film’s adaptation, starring Conrad Viedt in 1928. This depiction would later be immortalized by the creation of the Batman villain The Joker in 1940, whose face it was inspired.