Glasgow Smile

One of both of our all-time favourite books is the man who laughs by Victor Hugo.
It is the first time in literature where the disfigurement called a Glasgow smile is actually mentioned, so read about it below and see how the influence has spread over the centuries. PE

In the 1920s and ’30s, a horrifying mutilation called the “Glasgow Smile” was widely used by gangs in the eponymous city of Scotland. The act is performed with a knife, a piece of broken glass or a sharp object, and consists of mutilating the victims by making a cut from the corners of the mouth up to the ears, leaving victims scarred with a broad smile. The practice was later adopted and became popular with street gangs in England, particularly the Chelsea Headhunters, a Football-hooligan firm based in London, and to those it was known as a “Chelsea Grin”.

 Though this is commonly known as the origin of the Glasgow smile, the concept can be tracked back to as early as 1869. You can read about the incessant grin via The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo, in which his main character Gwynplaine possesses this, which they refer to as a perpetual grin.    

book cover








The novel, which is set in London in the late 17th century, tells the story of how the young man,  Gwynplaine, who performs with a travelling circus, used his mutilation to entertain the audience to great success. He started his theatrical act in the show with grace, before he concluded by removing the costume mask, revealing his deformation to humorous laughs by the audience, which they followed by giving him a standing ovation.

The convoluted novel explores a brutal class divide in greater London at the time, where the gap between the rich and the poor was tremendous, depicting examples of abuse and torture. Whilst exploring the themes, Gwynplaine, the main character has secrets unbeknownst to himself that consistently effect his class and status throughout the novel, resulting in unhappiness, confusion and ultimately multiple deaths. 

Man Who Laughs copy
The irony of a mutilation depicting something positive as a smile can sound both surreal and horrific for most people. However this practice has been romanticized by writers and artists for centuries. From the first description of the phenomenon in Hugo’s novel, it has been adapted by creative minds in a broad spectrum of industries. A feature film of the story was made in 1928 and a Broadway musical was put on in 2013. The same

year, comic book author David Hine made a graphic novel about the story. Hine’s alternative graphic novel includes some astonishing visuals, which will definitely give a kick to the original novel, if desired. 

Man_Who_Laughs_poster copy
The latest contribution of The Glasgow Smile in the mainstream media ,which many are familiar with, is Heath Ledger’s Academy Award winning portrayal of Batman’s number one nemesis, The Joker, which is said to be based on the character Gwynplaine from Hugo’s novel. After Heath Ledger’s outstanding performance as the super-villain in Christopher Nolan’s movie adaption of The Dark Knight, the popularity of the character increased drastically. This led to a decision of creating a standalone movie with Joaquin Phoenix portraying The Joker, which will be released soon after 2020. Without a doubt, the popularity of The Joker has strangely reincarnated the Glasgow smile into the mainstream media and the film industry. Although it’s so graphic and dark, it has managed to travel throughout art house literature to film, within the past 150 years.