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“The Man Who Laughs:” Victor Hugo’s Novel That Inspired the Joker

Centuries before the creation of the Joker character in DC comics, there was a character who reigned the description of a man with a permanent smile.

Centuries before the creation of the Joker character in DC comics, in literature, and even in silent films, there was a character who reigned the description of a man with a permanent smile who acted as a jester or entertainment for others.

Long before Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane (cartoonists of the Joker comic) were inspired by an actor to create this supervillain, Victor Hugo, the famous writer, mainly recognized for Les Miserables -which in turn has been adapted to theater and film multiple times and in dozens of countries-, created a character with a perpetual smile who suffered marginalization and mockery for it: Gwynplaine.

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In 1896, Victor Hugo published The Man Who Laughs, a novel that was intended to be his great masterpiece and that refers to all his previous novels. However, despite its success in its time, its popularity has paled over time, and it is not as well remembered as his other works.

In the years following its publication, the work enjoyed great success and was adapted both for the theater and for two films. The second adaptation, released in 1928, created a milestone around the figure of the smiling man and the actor who played him, Conrad Veidt, who also participated in Casablanca. For this film, the actor had to resort to the use of hooks and makeup to further enhance his smile; but, where does such a gesture originate from?

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The Origin of Gwynplaine’s Smile and the Joker

Victor Hugo’s novel revolves around Gwynplaine, a man who, from childhood, is constantly bullied. Towards the end of The Iron Maiden, another novel by the author, Gwynplaine’s father is captured by order of James II of England, but not before they give his son to a band of gypsies. There, Gwynplaine is subjected to a of procedure called Bucca Fissa, which will force him to smile perpetually, in what is supposed to represent a mockery of his own father’s stupidity.

This act leaves Gwynplaine seen as a monster; however, unlike the character it eventually inspired, Gwynplaine is a kind man. This is a common topic in Victor Hugo’s narrative as we saw in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

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The smile is a source of unhappiness and marginalization. In both cases, the permanent smile becomes an impediment to showing his real feelings. Gwynplaine is capable of showing a serious countenance, but it implies great effort or pain, which makes him a being to be feared. In that sense, the smile also becomes a reason for him to become an outcast, similar to what happens to the Joker. On the other hand, the perpetual smile also leads him to labor as a circus attraction and be subject to both the astonishment and ridicule of the public.

Their conditions take them away from human warmth and throw them into misfortune, which in both characters have a different consequence that depends on the degrees of madness and evil that each author gave them.

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In such a way, both Victor Hugo’s novel and the construction of the Joker’s character become a portrait of the social conditions of their historical contexts, whether through the denunciation of bullying, in the most recent Joker adaptation (2019) of the helplessness of people who require medical treatment, to mention just two examples.

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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