Monday, January 12, 2009

Victor Hugo and the death penalty - The Last Day of a Condemned Man

Victor Hugo's The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) is a novella-length story, 67 pages in the edition I read, a first person account of a man condemned to the guillotine. It's not the prisoner's confession - the chapter headed "My Story" is actually blank - but his moods and reflections, his suffering and panic and anger. The condemned man is supposed to be writing all of this while awaiting his punishment, so we do not actually witness the execution. The story ends when the prisoner stops writing: "The sniveling lackeys! Here they come, back up the stairs... FOUR O'CLOCK". That's it.

This is a political book, propaganda, meant to assist in the abolition of the death penalty. It was first published anonymously, not exactly as if it were an authentic account, but at least allowing for the possibility. A few years later, suddenly famous and disgusted by the failure of the 1830 Revolutionaries to carry through on their promise to abolish capital punishment, Hugo added a long (22 page) preface in which he makes his argument explicit. In contemporary American terms, the logical argument of the book is that capital punishment, specifically the period between the sentencing and the execution, amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment”.

But The Last Day is fiction, not a tract, so the argument of the story, and even of the preface, is not presented in logical terms. The effect is emotional, psychological. I'm a hard-headed fellow, and this is not a method that is likely to convince someone like me of much of anything. Not just me, I guess, since the death penalty was only abolished in France in 1981.

The 2002 Hesperus Press edition I read is itself an explicitly political book, a sort of memorial to a classic of anti-capital punishment literature. The cover features "death row photographs", and the afterword is by the Director of Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen. Her case against the death penalty is presented in two efficient, logical, hard-headed pages and is exactly the sort of thing to convince someone like me. Different tools for different jobs.

Anyway, this has all been about The Last Day of a Condemned Man as political argument. For a number of reasons, I think the book fails in its political purpose. One of the reasons is that Hugo refuses to simplify his story, and sometimes even argues against himself. But - or perhaps, so - as a work of art, it's a great success, very much worth reading. I'll save this for the next couple of days.

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