Gwynplaine, a 10-year old, homeless boy, is being left at the coast of Portland by a group of people. He fights his way through the snowy night, rescues a little babygirl from the breast of her mother, who has already passed away, and when he finally reaches the city of Weymouth, which could be his saviour, nobody would open the door for the two little orphans. Finally he comes to a waggon, in which lives Ursus, a travelling doctor and philosopher, and his wolf Homo. Despite Ursus murring about them kids taking away his poor dinner, he adopts them. When the day sets, Ursus recognizes that Gwynplaine is one of the victims of a group of people called 'Comprachicos': he was bought away from his parents and his face was operated so that Gwynplaine has an everlasting smile on his face, originally in order to show him at year markets and make money.
The kids grow up living with Ursus, travelling around and performing a play, which is a huge success, as nobody can resist laughing out loud when seeing Gwynplaine's face. It's beautiful how Gwynplaine and the girl, Dea, love each other and thank God for having each other.
When Gwynplaine gets to know his true identity of Lord of England and is forced to join the House of Lords, he tries to talk into the other lords to do something for the poor, as he has lived in the middle of that part of society. But partly because of the content of his speech, partly because of his dismantled appearance, none of the lords listens to him. He soon has to admit that the rich live for the rich only and don't care about the poor. He runs away, returning to find Ursus and Dea and live the poor but happy life he had with them, but the fragile Dea, who could not bear the shock of the loss of her brother and lover, is already dying. When she passes away, Gwynplaine takes his own life, and hopes for a better life in the afterworld.
Gwynplaine’s facial appearance is why this story is so poignant - Gwynplaine is condemned to always smile, whereas he lives in the poorest of situations. He tries to make an influence when he recognizes he is a mighty lord, but due to his face he won’t ever be taken serious.