Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Making of a Condamne: State Power and the Ritual of Trial in le Dernier Jour D'un Condamne and Claude Gueux

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Making of a Condamne: State Power and the Ritual of Trial in le Dernier Jour D'un Condamne and Claude Gueux

Article excerpt

Ce soir on y attend quelqu'un, [...] un condamne que la cour d'assises est en train de faire a l'heure qu'il est.

--Victor Hugo, Le Dernier Jour d'un condamne, Ch. XXII

In the history of the modern movement against the death penalty in France, Victor Hugo stands out not only as one of the principal voices in his own time, but also as point of reference in the century and a half that passed between his initial participation in the discussion and the abolition of capital punishment in 1981. On the momentous occasion of the passage of abolition, Robert Badinter's thoughts turned to Hugo: "Je regardai l'horloge : il etait douze heures et cinquante minutes, ce 30 septembre 1981. Le voeu de Victor Hugo--'l'abolition pure, simple et definitive de la peine de mort'--etait realise" (272). Hugo was a part of a major movement for abolition in the 1820s and 1830s, itself a phase of the larger modern movement, begun in 1764 by the Italian Cesare Beccaria's treatise Dei Delitti e Delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments), whose opposition to the practice had been echoed in France before the Revolution by such thinkers as Voltaire and Condorcet. Before featuring it prominently under the Terror, the Revolution took up the matter of abolishing the death penalty, and abolition found support from such prominent figures as Maximilien Robespierre before it was voted down in 1791. After the bloodiest period of the Terror, in the year IV (1795), the Convention passed a law that would abolish the death penalty once peace was established--a condition that was not satisfactorily met, it seems, before the Code Penal of 1810 officially put capital punishment back on the books.

Under the Restoration, as Sonja Hamilton shows in the central argument of her doctoral thesis, opposition to the death penalty was increasingly widespread and vocal as dissenting opinions of the Restoration monarchy grew, reaching their most fevered pitch in the years just before 1830. She shows that written expression of this opposition covered the full range of political, philosophical, legal, literary, and scientific texts and was often associated with the Romantic movement, citing in particular works of Benjamin Constant, the group of the Jeunes-France, Stendhal, and others. Widely considered the leader of the French Romantic movement during this period, Hugo was no exception to this phenomenon; his early-career literary intervention consisted of two short prose works on the subject: Le Dernier Jour d'un condamne (1829) and Claude Gueux (1834). While the death penalty and the author's opposition to it are visible in Hugo's earliest novels, these two works mark his first direct treatments of the issue in the context of the place and time (namely, nineteenth-century France) that was most familiar to both author and readers.

In Le Dernier Jour d'un condamne, Hugo presents a first-person narrative that claims to have been written by a prisoner in the last hours before his execution. The novel gives the reader intimate access to the condemned man's thoughts and experiences after his conviction while simultaneously downplaying his crime (although we do know that it was violent), allowing us to feel a connection and identification with him and making our walk with him to the guillotine at times unbearably chilling. The author, one assumes, intends to use feelings of pity to inspire his reader to oppose the death penalty. In contrast to this emotional approach, the second work of interest to us here, Claude Gueux, seems considerably more rational. In fact, the last ten pages of the forty-page novella contain what can only be described as a political argument on the issue addressed to France's legislators, where Hugo claims that the main character's execution punishes him for a wrong that was committed by society, namely, its failure to educate him and equip him to escape the poverty that eventually drove him to crime.

In both works, however, Hugo's opposition to the death penalty runs deeper than the respective works' apparent preoccupations, that is, deeper than feelings of horror or sympathy or ideas about educational policy. …

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