The Laughing Man (short story)

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"The Laughing Man" is a short story by J. D. Salinger, published originally in The New Yorker on March 19, 1949; and also in Salinger's short story collection Nine Stories.[1] It largely takes the structure of a story within a story and is thematically occupied with the relationship between narrative and narrator, and the end of youth. The story is inspired by the 1869 Victor Hugo novel of the same name: The Man Who Laughs (L'homme qui rit).

Plot summary[edit]

An unnamed narrator recounts his experiences as a nine-year-old member of the Comanche Club in New York City in 1928. The leader of the club, “The Chief”, is a young law student at New York University who is described as lacking in physical attractiveness but appears beautiful to the narrator. He is widely respected by his troop for his athletic strength and storytelling ability.

Every day, after the troop has completed its activities, The Chief gathers the boys for the next episode in an ongoing story about the eponymous Laughing Man. In the format of a serial adventure novel, The Chief's story describes the Laughing Man as the child of missionaries who was kidnapped by bandits in China, who deformed his face by compressing it in a vise; he was obliged to wear a mask, but compensated by being profoundly athletic and possessed of a great Robin Hood-like charm and the ability to speak with animals.

The narrator summarizes the Chief's ever more fantastic installments of the Laughing Man's escapades, presenting him as a sort of comic book hero crossing “the Chinese-Paris border” to commit acts of heroic larceny and tweaking his nose at his archenemy “Marcel Dufarge, the internationally famous detective and witty consumptive”.

Eventually, The Chief takes up with a young woman, Mary Hudson, a student at Wellesley College who is described as both very beautiful and something of a tomboy.

As the Chief's relationship with Mary waxes and wanes, so too do the fortunes of The Laughing Man. One day, the Chief presents an installment where the Laughing Man is taken prisoner by his arch-rival, bound to a tree, and in mortal danger; then he ends the episode on a cliffhanger. Immediately afterward, the Chief brings his troop to a baseball diamond, where Mary Hudson arrives. The Chief and Mary have a conversation out of earshot from the boys, and then both return, together yet distraught.

In the final installment of the story, the Chief kills off the Laughing Man, much to the Comanches’ dismay.

Film adaptation[edit]

Salinger was reluctant to allow his works to be adapted for film. However, he instructed the entertainment licenses department of his literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, to send his story out to producers for a potential film deal. The move was motivated by financial need, but the interested parties only expressed desire to adapt his novel The Catcher in the Rye.[2]

References in other media[edit]

In season 1 of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the "Laughing Man case" is a main plot line, incorporating references to stories by J. D. Salinger.[3]

In Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco (1998), the character Alice is asked what her dream book to publish would be. She answers, a book of new J.D. Salinger stories "more in the direction of The Laughing Man, or Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters..."[4]


  1. ^ J. D. Salinger. Nine Stories. Little, Brown & Co. 1991
  2. ^ Lathbury, Roger (February 20, 2011). "Kenneth Slawenski's biography of J.D. Salinger". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-09-21.
  3. ^ "Shout Out / Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex". Retrieved 2020-05-15.
  4. ^ "The Last Days of Disco". Chloë Sevigny Online. 2015-06-07. Retrieved 2022-07-13.

Further reading[edit]