“The Man Who Laughs” by Victor Hugo

[Also published under the title: By Order of the King]

“I returned and saw under the sun that—
The race is not to the swift,
Nor the battle to the strong,
Nor bread to the wise,
Nor riches to men of understanding,
Nor favor to men of skill;
But time and chance happen to them all.”

Synopsis

This book reminded me of the movie “On the Waterfront“, especially the famous speech by Marlon Brando: “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum”.

There are common themes in the 1869 book and the 1954 Academy Award winning movie: The struggle between two classes / interest groups, the intervention of other people and our own choices that ultimately shape our lives. One hero could have been a champion boxer, the other should have been a Prince; One’s career was ruined by a corrupt union boss, and the other’s face and life were destroyed by order of the king; Both heroes found moral/spiritual support in an older friend and the love of a virgin, and both stood up and fought for what was Right in the grand finale.

This book is at once a romance, thriller, Bildungsroman and manifesto.

Caprice and Chance

One of the things that struck me the most in this book is the realization of “chance”. You could have been somebody, yes, but you also could have been a monkey, or an amoeba in a petri dish. If, as Plato who believed in the pre-existence of the soul wrote in “Phaedrus”, before coming into this world, we choose the life we will lead by drawing lots, what would each of us be? Would some not end up being a beast because that is most akin to their nature?

The hero, Gwynplaine, was born Lord Clancharlie. By inheritance, he had riches and privileges equal to those of the king; But, by order of the king, he was sold to human smugglers as a baby and became a mountebank.

Hugo, the master of contrast, first painted the extravagant riches and grandeur of the Lords, their palaces, the beautiful furnitures and works of art, their vast land and forests; then he described in Gothic style and vivid detail the life of little Gwynplaine, struggling to survive among brutal elements and an apathetic society.

As in “Toilers of the Sea” published three years earlier, Hugo painted in masterful and beautiful strokes a danger-filled, breath-taking adventure on the sea, an allegory of man’s journey through life, seemingly governed by caprice and chance. Against all odds, however, the secret of Gwynplaine’s true identity was preserved and later brought to light when he came into adulthood.

Characters and Intrigue

Unlike in his other novels, in which the heroines are either beautiful but naive virgins or suffering single mothers, here Hugo presented “the Woman”, who was “well read and accomplished. Never had a passion approached her, yet she had sounded them all. She had a disgust for realizations, and at the same time a taste for them … Josiana was in everything–in birth, in beauty, in irony, in brilliancy–almost a queen.” Josiana desired Gwynplaine.

Also for the first time, Hugo made me shudder with his psychological portrayal of “the Reptile”, who lay in wait for the Woman to ruin her. “An intention and a carbine are alike. Barkilphedro aimed at Josiana, directing against the duchess all his secret malice. That astonishes you! What has the bird done at which you fire? You want to eat it, you say. And so it was with Barkilphedro.” Barkilphedro is the most intriguing and yet disgusting villain in all of Hugo’s novels I’ve read.

The Hero’s Choice

The path of our hero is filled with dangers and temptations. However, Hugo made a point that, though our lives may be influenced by chance, by the misguided good intentions of our friends, by the evil schemes of our  “natural enemies”, we still make the choices which alone ultimately shape our destiny.

Quotes:

“The disconcerting enigmas which in nature we call caprice, and in human life chance, are splinters of a law revealed to us in glimpses.”

“I am he who cometh out of the depths. My lords, you are great and rich. There lies your danger. You profit by the night; but beware! The dawn is all-powerful. You cannot prevail over it. It is coming. Nay! it is come. …The sun I speak of is Right. You are Privilege. Tremble! The real master of the house is about to knock at the door. What is the father of Privilege? Chance. What is his son? Abuse. Neither Chance nor Abuse are abiding. For both a dark morrow is at hand.”

Tiger-Like Wave

“There is always in storms a tiger-like wave, a billow fierce and decisive, which, attaining a certain height, creeps horizontally over the surface of the waters for a time, then rises, roars, rages, and, falling on the distressed vessel, tears it limb from limb.”

The Woman

“Her irradiation overflowed the box, she sat in the midst of it, immovable, in the spreading majesty of an idol. Amid the sordid crowd she shone out grandly, as with the radiance of a carbuncle. She inundated it with so much light that she drowned it in shadow, and all the mean faces in it underwent eclipse. Her splendor blotted out all else. Every eye was turned toward her.”

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