"Religion, Society, and Nature! these are the three struggles of man. They constitute at the same time his three needs. In Notre-Dame de Paris the author denounced the first; in Les Misérables he exemplified the second; in this book he indicates the third."
This is taken from the preface to Les Travailleurs de la Mer. Having read Les Misérables and Notre Dame, I really felt like completing a philosophical trilogy upon starting this book.
Short summary: Gilliatt is an outsider in a small village on the island of Guernesey. One day he falls in love with the beautiful Deruchette. Deruchette is Mess Lethierry's cousin, and he loves her above everything, next to his steamship called Durande. On day his captain, Sieur Clubin, intentionally causes the Durande to shipwreck so he can run away with a fortune. Lethierry is devastated. Witnesses assure, however, that the machine of the ship is unhurt and still on the cliffs. Deruchette says that she will marry the man who can bring her father's machine home safely. Gilliatt smells his chance, and sets out for the dangerous cliffs. He works for weeks, starving himself, defying storms and even a kraken, and finally manages to return the machine home. On the very same night, he hears Deruchette declaring her love to another man, and knows he does not want to marry her while she's loving another, but Lethierry tells him she should be his. He selflessly helps her and her lover to marry without her uncle's knowledge and they run away to England. Gilliatt returns to the ocean and drowns himself.
The last sentence of this German translation was gorgeous: I looked up the English and French version, but they weren't nearly as striking. When both the ship with the newly-weds and Gilliatts head are out of sight, the last sentence says: Und nichts war mehr, als das Meer. I LOVE that.
Although the translation from 1866 (the same year Hugo published his book) is well done, this edition is very poorly edited, there are lots of interpunction failures and spelling mistakes. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book a lot. Not as much as the 'first two' in this 'trilogy', but still Hugo's brilliant voice and his view on the world shimmered through clearly. I could smell the salty winds, I could feel the sand on my skin, just like Gilliatt's willpower and desperation.
Victor Hugo is a true master of language. Under his pen, words turn into gems, forming perfect jewels when strung together. No matter what he writes about, it sounds delightful. A joy for every literature loving eye. But he does not just write about anything; he is also blessed with the gift of writing magnificent storylines and creating extraordinary characters. The main characters in this book are tragic in all kinds of way: tragically ugly (Quasimodo), tragically innocent (Esmeralda), tragically in love (Claude Frollo). One could even say that captain Phoebus is tragically plain.
In ‘Notre Dame de Paris’, Hugo brings a church and a city to life. I choose to use the original title, because the main character is not, as the English title suggests, the bell ringer Quasimodo. I would say the main character is love. The ugly outcast and the priest love the beautiful gypsy girl, the gypsy, in turn, loves a captain. But it’s not just the passionate love the plays its part. The story also is about everlasting love and pain for a lost daughter and the unconditioned love for a younger brother. The bell ringer, the priest and the girl all suffer from unrequited love (even if Esmeralda doesn’t realize that her soldier just wants her for one night, naïve as the young girl is). Unrequited love can be taken for granted if one silently accepts it, as Quasimodo is forced to do because of his looks. But it can also evolve to jealousy, hatred and thirst for revenge – the feelings that swell in the breast of the priest. And so the one who loves her crazily brings her to the gallows. Pierre Gringoire, one of the characters in the book, correctly states: “That’s life… It’s often our best friends who make us fall”.
The Man Who Laughs is a a brilliantly written, beautiful masterpiece by Victor Hugo. It's a real shame this book is so little known. Hugo is a magnificent thinker and he can put his philosophic thoughts into words in an absolutely brilliant way.
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.