Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Last Days of a Condemned Man by Victor Hugo

The Last Days of a Condemned Man is a short novel written by the great Romantic writer, Victor Hugo. Hugo is best known for his novels, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. It's always a pleasant surprise to come across yet another work by a favorite writer, so it was a serendipitous moment when I happened to see this novel in the book store.

The book is exactly what the title says. Victor Hugo writes in the first person, describing the last couple of days of a man condemned to the guillotine. His purpose, as he states in the prologue, is to provide the horror of someone waiting to die in order to make the death penalty illegal. The book has been reprinted by Amnesty International in hopes of using Hugo's work as an influence towards this end.

I'm not going to give any opinions on whether the death penalty should be outlawed or not, I'm simply going to comment on the book.

The writing, needless to say, is as powerful as any of Hugo's work. You are sitting in the cell with the condemned man, experiencing what he is experiencing. Hugo shows how degraded prisoners are-especially when citizens come in to observe them as a type of freak show for their own amusement. It is appalling that the executions were public and extremely popular among the citizens, including the children.

To me this is proof that exposing people to violence does not make them more aware of injustice or motivate them to end it. It serves to desensitize them to it. I say this in response to the rationalization I've heard that certain movies are necessary (like Goodfellas or Taken) because they reveal the horrors of certain situations and the public needs to know. I watched Taken on a bus full of high school students. Judging from all the cheering and laughing throughout the film, I'd say not too many of them left the movie feeling motivated to end violence.

As I read the story, what I kept waiting for, was some sort of regret or repentance from the condemned man. His crime is barely mentioned. Apparently he murdered someone. He doesn't seem to reflect on this much. He mostly focuses on his own fate. He wants to see his wife and daughter again. He hopes against hope that he'll be granted a reprieve.

If Hugo's intentions were to garner sympathy for his protagonist, for me at least, he failed. For one. This was not a real person. Hugo was projecting his own conclusions on someone, trying to imagine what someone about to die would think. I'd be more interested in knowing what a real condemned person is thinking.

Hugo's protagonist mostly gripes and complains. He never once thinks about his victim. What he so desperately desires for himself, to live, he took from another person who had every bit as much right to live as he did. More so in the sense that victim was innocent.

In one respect, I think Hugo does succeed. Hugo successfully portrays a man without a conscience. He has no remorse for his crime. He only feels a sense of wrong concerning himself. I saw this played out so many times at the school where I taught for many years. In the nine years that I taught, being the music teacher, I taught thousands of children. This allowed me to observe human behavior on at least a small scale.

One thing I noticed about certain children, the bullies, predators, etc...They had no conscience toward how they treated others. But they were outraged that any consequences should happen to them. It was as though they couldn't connect the dots between cause and effect. There was no sense of personal responsibility.

This thin book is probably little known, being over shadowed as it is by Hugo's epic works but it is thought- provoking and worth sitting down one evening and reading.

or buy on Kindle for $3.79

Illlustrated  version:

.99 on Kindle


  1. Sounds like an interesting book... thanks for the review!


    1. Eustacia: You're welcome. Have a good day.

  2. Wow, sounds like a very powerful story. I must read this, thanks for letting us know about this book and the recommendation.

  3. Great commentary.

    I have only read Les Miserables by Hugo. I imagine his handling of this subject to be skilled.

    I agree with you that most violent imagery only desensitizes people. I do think that there are exceptions. The film "Unforgiven" comes to mind.

    I think that Your observation of bullies is also right on target.

    1. Brian: I've never seen Unforgiven. Actually I am a sensitive soul. If it's not comedy or romance I usually can't handle films. Thanks for your comments.

  4. I am unfamiliar with this one but it certainly sounds like a good read. Your observations are really interesting! I keep seeing things in different media about how many sociopaths/psychopaths really exist in society, how often the business executive or the successful professional often fit the criteria for a psychopath not just criminals, it is that inability to empathise with others and the effects of their actions that seems to be a principal defining factor and one can certainly see examples emerge in the school yard.

    1. Good point Arabella. I have been given a book called, "The Narcisstic Epidemic." I wonder if it will touch on this phenomena at all. Have a good day!

  5. thanks admin


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.