The Last Day of a Condemned Man

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.


Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “The Last Day of a Condemned Man

  1. The quotes from the book seem somewhat realistic, although if what Agatha Christie wrote is true, murderers are an arrogant sort (by assuming they are too smart to get caught), and so I wonder if there isn’t a lot of “They’ll pay for doing this to me! They’ll see!” thinking as well. I wonder if Hugo interviewed any murderers, and how he arrived at what he thinks a condemned man might be thinking. Is it possible, if you haven’t committed murder, to really get inside someone’s head? I don’t know. I don’t know the circumstances of the murder in the story, and that too might make a difference in what the character was thinking.

    I’ll be honest — in some cases I support the death penalty. When a person knowingly torments and kills an entire family for money (e.g., Cheshire home invasion), and there is sufficient proof, I think he or she is entitled to feel those same feelings that his/her victims felt before they were executed.


  2. I just got into the didactic purpose vs. artistic quality thing over on my blog – more reading serendipity. 🙂

    I like the points you make here about the anti-death-penalty arguments that are suited to fiction, versus those that aren’t. And I always feel a little weird reading political rants I already agree with – even though I know that books are written to a general audience, the act of reading still seems so intimate to me, and I always want to assure the author, “It’s OK! You don’t have to work so hard! I’m already on your side!”


  3. My PhD student wrote his thesis on Sartre and Hugo, the link between them being the idea of the ‘ecrivain engage’ (that should have an acute accent on the end – no idea where that lurks on the keyboard), which is to say the writer committed to ethical causes in his work. Sartre was readily recognised as such, but Hugo had been less so. Yet he was a fiercely political writer. But he was also a Romantic, and an idealist, and so his writing has a very particular flavour in its arguments and not one that always makes a lot of sense today!

    I sort of quite like Hugo. I’ll read him if told to, but I can live without him.


  4. Dorothy, I agree with your political take – that the book is probably not going to convert many people.

    But I thought that the story, especially combined with the supporting apparatus, was artistically quite successful.

    The scene where we watch the ordinary prisoners depart for their hard labor sentence was very impressive, for example. But I also admired the switches in rhetoric and tone.

    Debby – how is it possible? He used his imagination! Hugo was one of history’s great fiction writers.


  5. Sounds like you liked the book but didn’t love it. I agree with you that it won’t convert people. Amateur Reader’s comment though reminding me of the scene he refers to makes me wonder if the book, though not successful in making converts in opinion on the death penalty, may make a better argument toward prison reform in some ways for the ones who have not been condemned but because of hard labor end up wishing they had been.


  6. I’ve never read any Hugo, perhaps because I have mistakenly carried the belief that is work is archaic and inaccessible. Your review makes me think otherwise – not only was the writing quite nice, but it seems like this piece in particularly has a lot for modern readers to consider and dissect. I think one of the nice things about so-called “Classics” is that they are so meaty and give us readers so much to mull over. So, onto my TBR list Hugo now goes…


  7. I love Victor Hugo, though I’ve only read two of his books. I’m going to read Toilers of the Sea next year, I hope, and I’ll have to add this to my list too.

    To respond to the argument that you can’t really get into the mind of a murderer… I’m not sure how this is different from getting into the mind of ANYONE who has different experiences from you. I think that we, as a culture, sort of monsterize criminals, because it is comforting to believe that they’re just intrinsically different sorts of souls, it allows to avoid the sort of ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ mentality that I think really tortured people like Hugo. Is there truly evil people in the world? I suppose (I don’t say it’s necessarily true, but I’ll admit it for the sake of argument), but if so, they’re doing a lot fo different things, not just murdering people. Evil isn’t in actions, it’s in intent, to some degree, and motive, and you can’t just execute people based on their motives and intents. It’s too easy for that kind of system to be abused.


  8. Debby — it’s an interesting question about the extent to which we can get into other people’s heads and imagine what they experience, murderers or not. I suppose that’s an unanswerable question, really, so all we can do is trust it’s possible. Otherwise, fiction writers would be out of a job! I don’t know what kind of research Hugo did, and the character never tells why he murdered — that remains a mystery. It’s an interesting choice Hugo made to keep that information unrevealed. And I understand your argument about the death penalty. It’s not where I come down on the issue, but I do see your point.

    Emily — well, I will have to check out your post! (Which I would do anyway…) The novella itself doesn’t feel like a plea, but Hugo’s long preface sure does, and the preface changes the experience of reading the rest of the book. I’m not sure how his readers of the time responded — that would be interesting to know.

    Litlove – well, that sounds like an interesting connection between two writers I would not have put together! I can see that Hugo is a political writer based on this book, which is the first of his I’ve read. I kind of agree with you about Hugo — I’m not sure I need to read his other work, although it wouldn’t hurt me if I did 🙂

    Amateur Reader — Thank you for those links — I will check them out. I agree that he wrote some great scenes — those are what will stay with me from the book, as well as the narrator’s thoroughly anguished tone.

    Stefanie — that’s exactly it — liking but not love. Interesting idea about prison reform. That argument definitely works with the short story after the novella — it makes the point that prison can corrupt very strongly.

    Steph — I’m glad you have decided to read more Hugo! This is the first book of his I’ve read, and I’ll admit that I’m not super-eager to read more, but I’m glad I did read this. It certainly is very accessible, and yes, lots to think about!

    Jason — I’ve never heard of Toilers of the Sea — in fact, I know distressingly little about Hugo. Yes, I can see how it’s easy to turn criminals into monsters in order to distance themselves from us. And yet it’s a really interesting question the extent to which “they” are different from “us” — it requires an act of imagination to try to understand a murderer, and the question remains about whether we are correct in our speculation about what they experience. How do we know, really?


  9. He explores some of these same issues in Les Misérables in greater detail–as you may imagine by the length of the book. After reading him, I think I’m like you–I like his work and appreciate what he was trying to do with his writings (and in many instances agreed with him) and he can engage the reader very dramatically, but at the same time I don’t really love him. I’m not sure I’ll pick up another of his works, but you never know!


  10. The death penalty is interesting, isn’t it? I have trouble reconciling the parts of me that believe in a woman’s right to choose while not being in favor of the death penalty. Why should, say, Charles Manson keep living, but some “inconvenient” unborn human not? The most consistent stance would be to oppose the death penalty and to oppose abortion (in other words, always to be in favor of life, no matter whose life, over death), but most, in our society, don’t take that consistent approach. Basically, I’m not “good” enough not to want revenge if, say, someone were to kill my husband or my mother or anyone else I love like that. I’d be up front, all in favor of sending that murderer to “the gallows.” However, I am opposed to the death penalty, because I know our legal system is anything but perfect, and one innocent person dying is one too many. We do not have the right to “play God” like that. I never, though, thought that much about being inside the head of a condemned man — guilty or not — until I saw the movie “Dead Man Walking.” This book sounds like another good venue for exploring that and all the complexity surrounding the practice of condemning humans to death.


  11. Danielle — I’m not sure, to be honest, that I can handle Les Miserables! I admire you for finishing that one. It’s just too long, and I’m not sure about the historical sections. I mean, I’m sure it’s good, but I may stick to shorter works!

    Emily — you’re absolutely right that this book is a good venue for exploring questions of what it means to make another person die. And yes, about the abortion and death penalty issue — that’s such a tough one, and I suppose I’m just not going to be consistent about it in the way you describe.


  12. Just as a little sidenote I think this book sounds like it might be as oppossed to the idea of death by guillotine as it is to the general death penalty. The guillotine was originally conceived as a quicker, more human way to carry out the death penalty (hanging could take something like 6 minutes to finish a man apparently, unless people pulled the man down by their feet or the hangman constructed the noose in a particular way) but there were many critics who didn’t agree with the compromise of using the guillotine (how could anyone know how much it hurt, how can enforced death be human). Sounds like Hugo was one such guy.


  13. Anyone interested in more Hugo but nervous about the ludicrous bulk of Les Miserables should hie thyself to Notre Dame of Paris, which no one has mentioned yet. A wild, wild book.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s