A to Z, D10: Joy Is……

Joy’s smile is much closer to tears than laughter.
Victor Hugo

This quote has a deceiving simplicity. I find it ambiguous, at the least, and enigmatic, at most. The ambiguity of language in these words, or any other set of words, is a problem if it arises from carelessness, but if deliberate, it can lead to much reflection and even dissension.  You could write a long essay on this quote.

Victor Hugo, by Alphonse Legros.

Victor Hugo, by Alphonse Legros. (Wikipedia)

What is Victor Hugo really trying to say?  We certainly cannot accuse him of being careless.  But the statement is also a translation from the French, and something might have been lost or distorted in translation.

Is Hugo saying that joy is closer to tears than it is to laughter?  Or, is he comparing these two psychological phenomena* and saying joy is closer to tears than laughter is? There is a difference in the two interpretations.

*From a psychological viewpoint, joy and laughter are not on the same plane. Joy is an emotional state and laughter is an observable behavior, one of the ways in which joy could be expressed, or behind which sadness could be hidden (although some may think it’s a bit more complicated in its manifestation). Tears, like laughter, also comprise an observable behavior often associated with sadness, but obviously also with happiness or joy. Thus, from this viewpoint it does not make much sense to compare joy with laughter, the second interpretation.

I prefer to think he means the first, a less problematic reading that you could continue to nuance. For instance, it encompasses that expression “tears of joy” and the fact that we (women, especially) are as likely to cry as to laugh, out of joy.

Botticelli’s Primavera

But Victor Hugo was a literary man, not a social scientist, sensitive to the power of words and how to use their ambiguity to move you.    He was probably also acutely attuned to emotions and the subtle variations in their coloring, as attested to by his Gothic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think he may be saying that we can more easily feel joy and feel it more intensely if we have just been through sadness.


  1. Tara Tyler Robinson (@taratylertalks)

    it’s a beautiful quote – tears of joy is what i thought of too. i like your profound posts!
    happy j day!

    1. Evy (Post author)

      Thank you, Tara. I liked your funny, imaginative ones.


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