Gwynplaine is abandoned as a child on the coast of England, left to die in a raging snow storm. However, Gwynplaine not only preservers, he rescues another waif, Dea, a baby who he found still clinging to her mother’s dead and frozen breast. They’re taken in by Ursus, a traveling carnival worker. The children are not unsuited to the carnival side-show: Dea is blind and Gwynplaine has been facially mutilated to give him a perpetual rictus grin.
Fifteen years later, the police arrive at the door and lead Gwynplaine away. Ursus follows and watches as Gwynplaine disappears into the prison. He knows that for those of their class, the only exit from those doors is death. But Gwynplaine isn’t being lead to execution.
In former times, the royal courts of Europe were served by dwarfs, but as that novelty wore off, they called for ever more exotic human curiosities. This demand lead to the formation of the Comprachicos, a band who purchased and surgically transformed children into wonderful and terrible monstrosities. But the age of the court jester is now only a dim memory. Hardquanonne was the last surgeon alive who knew how to create the masca ridens — the Laughing Man.
The ship that abandoned Gwynplaine that winter night was not long afterward caught in a storm. Before sinking, its passengers made a confession of their crimes and entrusted it to the sea in a bottle. After fifteen years, that bottle has washed ashore. Gwynplaine has been brought to prison to be identified by Hardquanonne, who has been tortured almost to death to extract his part of the conspiracy. After the end of the Civil War and the restoration of monarchy, some aristocrats continued to espouse Cromwellian views. Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie was among them. In exile, not long before his death, he had a son. By order of the king, James II, the child was sold to the last of the Comprachicos and the knowledge of his existence was suppressed. The doomed ship carried those Comprachicos and Gwynplaine is that child.
(By Order of the King, incidentally, is the book’s more usual title in English translation. The original French title L’Homme qui rit might be directly rendered “The Man Who Laughs” and some English editions do use that title, but my copy does not.)
Gwynplaine — or Lord Clancharlie, Baron of Clancharlie and Hunkerville, and Marquis of Corleone — is restored to the peerage. At the House of Lords, a vote is being held over whether to expand Prince George’s already enormous allowance by another £100,000, which all are in favor of. All but Gwynplaine. He delivers an impromptu speech that jumps from topic to topic and with a point that is somewhat confused, owing to it being unprepared, but in short, he accuses his fellow lords of being blind: blind to the sufferings of the poor that this tax will only increase, and blind to the judgment that they will soon face. His harangue is met with laughter and jeers.
That night, Gwynplaine returns home, but Ursus and Dea are gone — exiled from England, believing him dead. Their ship was delayed, however, and they’re still in the harbor. Gwynplaine finds them on board. Ursus appears to have been driven insane from grief. Dea, who was left not only blinded by the snow storm but with a weak heart, hovers near death. At the so unexpected sight of Gwynplaine, her heart gives out. Gwynplaine steps off the side of the ship and disappears into the inky water.
Inscriptions: a plate pasted on the inside front cover reads “Private library of Louie A. Babbitt, Northville, Mich., No. L-3”. On the flyleaf is written “Lou and Flora, from Grandma, 1889”.