Book review: The Man Who Laughs, by Victor Hugo


Of course, being a Hugo fan, I’ve known of this work for a long time. However, I knew how much commitment Hugo’s books require and therefore I was unable to read it until now, due to my excruciatingly busy schedule last year.

This is, primarily, a work of historical fiction. However, to generalise it and to put it on the same shelf as other such works of the time would be an insult to Hugo, who is, in my opinion, one of the best writers of all time. The protagonist of the book can, at first, be considered to be an archetypal romantic hero. The main features of his character are the result of social injustice, particularly a certain group of people to whom Hugo refers as “comprachicos”. They are, according to him, the vilest people society has to offer. The main source of their income is kidnapping children, disfiguring them, turning them into freaks of nature and then selling them to circuses and the like. Gwynplaine, the protagonist, is one of those children – he is the man whose face shall bear the mask of a laughing man forever. He is abandoned by a gang of comprachicos and, despite almost freezing and starving to death, rescues an infant girl whose mother has actually frozen to death. They are both then rescued by an elderly street performer named Ursus who travels with a pet wolf named Homo (Hugo does love his puns). Meanwhile, a complex subplot unveils in the home of English royalty and the House of Lords. Several years later, Gwynplaine inadvertently becomes involved with this subplot and discovers the actual circumstances of his birth and learns about his background with devastating consequences. His face is a fantastically tragic plot device that leaves the reader enraged, devastated and awed at Hugo’s writing.

My dear Hugo, you are my favourite writer but you really do like putting people through emotional torture don’t you? You did the same to me with “Les Miserables” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. However, I am not ashamed to admit that I enjoy every single minute of it. Everybody who loves the written word and appreciates well-written, multi-dimensional characters, as well as fabulous puns and sass, has got to get their hands on any novel of Hugo’s. This particular work of fiction does not disappoint in that respect either. It’s wordy, it’s full of fantastically interwoven plot points and detailed descriptions, snappy sassy dialogues and characters who are so multi-dimensional you can’t help but relate to them all in one respect or another. I have no hesitation in rating this book 10/10.

Favourite character and why:

Ursus – he is just brilliantly written, hilariously sassy and doesn’t take crap from anyone, despite being a simple street performer. However, he is also a caring and compassionate individual and a wonderful father figure.

Most relatable character and why:

All of them. Seriously.

Character who gets the most development: 

Gwynplaine – although again, they all do.

Least favourite character:

That one’s obvious – Barkilphedro. Hugo has very few characters that are completely and utterly evil and repulsive (Thenardier, I’m looking at you), and Barkilphedro is one of them. You can’t help but hate him.

Favourite relationship: 

Hugo really did love to write about relationships and feelings didn’t he? I honestly cannot say which relationship is my favourite.

Ursus/Gwynplaine and Gwynplaine/Dea. The latter has destroyed me by the end of the book – I’ve cried for ages! Won’t spoil anything for you, but this is one of those things that will initially make you all happy and hopeful, then drag you through misery and make you sob your heart out.

Favourite quote:

“I am come to warn you. I am come to impeach your happiness. It is fashioned out of the misery of your neighbour. You have everything, and that is composed of the nothing of others… As for me, I am but a voice. Mankind is a mouth, of which I am the cry. You shall hear me!” 


Gwynplaine: Marc-Andre Grondin

Ursus: Gerard Depardieu

Dea: Katie Hall

Josiana: Bridgette Wilson-Sampras

David: Nikolaj Coster Waldau

Barkilphedro: Сhristian Clavier


You might like “The Man Who Laughs” if you liked:

– “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo;

– “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George RR Martin;

– “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens. 

– “The Dark Knight” – the character of The Joker was actually heavily influened by the protagonist!

(Source of the photo:


2 thoughts on “Book review: The Man Who Laughs, by Victor Hugo

  1. Hugo is (one of) my (all time) favorite author(s)! He is incredible.

    Probably this is the only book of Hugo that I haven’t read. After reading your review though, I think I have to go back to my search of this book! 🙂 Especially as you rated it 10/10

    True about emotional torture, especially in The Hunchback of Notre Dame…all that drama, seriously? However, i like it because Hugo keeps apologizing to reader for describing it like this (or that Paris is not so accurate according to his description as he hasn’t been in the city for some years) and he keeps wondering about human nature himself. Great storyteller who is always there with you in the story.

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