Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man is fiction written with a purpose, and when someone writes fiction in order to make a point, as opposed to wanting to create great art, I can’t help but have my doubts about quality (although does that great art/political purpose opposition really hold up? Not sure.). Hugo’s book (kindly sent to me by Oneworld Classics) isn’t great art, I think, but it does do some interesting things fictionally, and it makes its political point in a powerful way.
It’s a book about the death penalty, and this edition opens with a preface by Hugo outlining his objections to the practice, so there is no doubt as you begin the story itself where Hugo stands. The novel takes the form of a diary written by a man living out his last days before he faces the guillotine. We aren’t told immediately, but eventually we find out he has committed murder, and there is never any doubt about whether he is guilty or not. The man writes down his thoughts and feelings over the course of the days leading up to his execution, and we follow him right up to the point before he is led away to his death.
What is interesting about the book is the way it allows you to imagine what it must be like to know you are about to die, that you will have a particularly gruesome death, and that crowds will be watching and cheering as your head is severed from your body. Hugo captures the torments his character goes through with enough detail and vividness that you can’t help but get caught up in the fear and turmoil. Here’s an example of what I mean:
They say it’s nothing, that you don’t suffer, that it’s a gentle end, that death is much simpler like that…. are they sure you don’t suffer? Who told them that? Has anyone heard of a severed head covered in blood that got up on the edge of the basket and shouted to the crowds: “That didn’t hurt?”
Are there any dead people who have come back and thanked them, saying: “It’s well designed. Leave it as it is. The mechanism is fine.”
Was it Robespierre? Was it Louis XVI?…
No, not at all! Less than a minute, less than a second and the deed is done. If only in their minds, have they ever put themselves in the place of the one who is there when the heavy chopper comes down and bites into flesh, severs nerves, shatters vertabrae… What! Half a second! Any pain is avoided…
Hugo also does a great job of describing the settings in which the condemned man finds himself, particularly the crowd scenes as the man is shuttled about to various cells before his execution. He makes you feel what it is like to be the center of attention at the point when one of the worst things that could possibly happen is about to happen to you:
In the clamour all around me I could no longer tell cries of pity from shouts of delight, laughter from groans, voices from noises; it was all just buzzing in my head, like an echo in a cooking pot.
Unthinkingly my eyes read the shop signs.
At one point I was seized with a bizarre curiosity to turn round and see where I was going. It was my mind’s last act of bravado. But my body didn’t want to; my neck was paralysed as if in anticipation of death.
I’m against the death penalty, so I’m not sure how someone who thinks otherwise would respond to this book, but if imagining how horrible it must be to face execution could sway anybody’s opinion, then this book could do it. The argument seems to be that execution is too awful a penalty to impose on anyone, and while that may not be the best anti-death penalty argument out there, it certainly is an argument well-suited to fiction. Fiction is particularly good at helping us understand what it’s like to be somebody else and at inspiring us to imagine things we have never experienced, so why not use its powers to inspire pity and terror in readers in order to persuade them to be merciful?
In addition to The Last Day of a Condemned Man, the Oneworld Classics edition contains another anti-death penalty work, a short story called “Claude Gueux.” The story is about how the justice system turns a man who stole something out of desperation, we aren’t told what, into a murderer. Society is arranged in such a way, the story argues, that pushes people toward crime, and then once they have committed that crime, it punishes them cruelly. There are stronger arguments to make against an unjust society than these works offer, but they still accomplish a lot: they make you think and feel and imagine what it must be like to be condemned.