Since it seems I’ve been on a roll of mentioning controversial subjects this week, let’s add one more, capital punishment anyone? Victor Hugo’s short novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man attempts to address the subject with the goal of abolishing capital punishment in France for one and all.
Originally published in 1829, in 1832 it appeared with a short preface in which Hugo suggested that the book could be read either as a story taken from the yellowing pages written by a “poor wretch” condemned to death, or as a work of imagination by a writer seized by the idea and unable to let it go. In a still later edition, Hugo, who must have stirred up quite a bit of controversy with the book, felt compelled to include a long essay outlining in detail why capital punishment should be abolished. In the essay he argues, among other things, that capital punishment is cruel, the guillotine is not entirely painless and quick for a good many people, and he details executions gone horribly wrong. He does not apologize for offending the sensibilities of his readers, instead he says he wants to force them to see what France and its people are doing, to purposely shock and appall in hopes that it will get people to act. It is a good essay and Hugo is obviously a passionate man.
The premise of the novel is that it was written on the last day of a condemned man’s life. But while it may have been written in a day, it covers several months in time. The condemned man doesn’t have a name and if he does I don’t remember seeing it. I suspect though that he doesn’t so as to be a sort of “everyman.” He is tried and sentenced for murder but we never find out what his motive for murder was, only that is wasn’t premeditated. The condemned has a wife and daughter and is of what seems to be middle to lower middle class. He mentions he has a study. He wears a frock coat of good quality. His young daughter has a nanny. He can read and write and he went to school but not to university.
The priest keeps showing up, expecting confession and contrition but the condemned cannot give the priest what he wants, not because he doesn’t believe in God, but because the priest is the prison chaplain and is only doing his job. He doesn’t care for the prisoner, he only goes through the motions and mouths the words without passion or compassion so that they are completely meaningless.
The guards are good to the condemned, but they too are only doing their job and are not entirely human:
That good jailer with his kindly smile, soothing words, those eyes that fawn and spy on you, with his big podgy hand, he is prison personified, Bicêtre incarnate. Everything around me is a prison; I see prison in all its forms, human as well as in the shape of bolts and bars. This wall is a prison made of stone; this door, a prison made of wood; these jailers, a prison made of flesh and blood. Prison is a sort of terrible creature, whole, inseparable, half house, half man. I am its prey: it broods over me, clutches me to its innermost recesses.
An execution is free public entertainment in Paris and the crowd squeezes into the square for the show. On the way to his death, the condemned man sees there are seats, scaffolds, and carts for hire to provide the spectators with a better view. He describes “pedlars of human blood” calling out ” ‘Who wants a seat?’ ” and the prisoner, angry with all these people, longs to call out, ” ‘Who wants mine?’ ”
The book is well written and well imagined but, for me, Hugo falls short of his goal. As someone who thinks capital punishment should be abolished, I am a sympathetic reader but found it hard to feel sorry for the condemned man. In fact, with the lack of details about the man’s life and his crime and his relentless emotional cycles of agitation and calm, I found myself thinking at times that maybe he deserved to be executed and quick just so I could be done with the book.
I think Hugo makes a much better argument and has a much more sympathetic character in the short story, Claude Gueux that the OneWorld edition I read includes in the book. Claude is an illiterate poor working man who, one particularly hard and jobless winter, steals in order to provide for his family. He is sent to prison for five years and upon his release cannot find honest work because no one wants to hire a criminal, and so is forced once again to commit a crime. His crimes get worse and worse until he murders someone. He is condemned to death and his family is left destitute and must fend for themselves as best they can.
I am glad I read this short novel. I have never read Hugo before and even though I was not dazzled by the story of The Last Day of a Condemned Man, I think it was a good book to read anyway for its historical and social content. But even though this was my first Hugo, it won’t be my last. I look forward to reading more of his work sometime.