Joy’s smile is much closer to tears than laughter.
This quote has a deceiving simplicity, don’t you think? It’s ambiguous, at the least, and enigmatic, at most.
That may be the way of great writers. To say something simply that’s actually loaded with meaning.
Ambiguity in language is a problem if it arises from carelessness. If deliberate, it can lead to much reflection and even dissension. You could write a long essay on this quote.
*From a psychological viewpoint, joy and laughter are not on the same plane. Joy is a feeling and laughter is behavior we can see. From this viewpoint, it doesn’t make much sense to compare the two.
Laughter can mean either joy or sadness. We laugh when we’re happy. We may also laugh to hide our sadness. Or our embarrassment. But Hugo is talking about joy’s smile. Smiles express what laughter does, but in a milder way. Sometimes, though, a smile is more heartfelt.
Tears, like laughter, is also behavior we can see. Often, we associate it with sadness. But we may also have tears of happiness. Or tears of anger. Women, more than men, are prone to tears.Victor Hugo was a literary man, not a social scientist. He was 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. This is evident in his Gothic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Anyway, I believe Hugo is saying that after something sad, we’re more likely to show heartfelt joy in tears than in laughter.