Claude Gueux by Victor Hugo, 1834

My daughter is home schooled for now. She has to read Claude Gueux by Victor Hugo and I realised, to my very big shame, that I’ve never read it myself. So I jumped on the internet and downloaded it (Thank you Oh big Internet God for the free classics ebooks). Anyway, it was a really short but a really good Victor Hugo fix. I remember reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame, many many years ago, when I was 14 and loving it…. The Miserables were a much bigger piece but so very good.

For those who are unfamiliar with the personage, Victor Hugo was a French poet, novelist and dramatist of the 19th century. Some classify his works as belonging to the Romanticism, some as belonging to the Realism movements. He wrote many volumes of poetry such as Les Contemplations but he’s better known for his two major novels Le Bossu de Notre-Dame (The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, 1831) and Les Misérables (The Miserables, 1862). Hugo was also a political figure. He believed in and fought for the reinstatement of the Republic and democracy in France which had for consequence that he was sent in exile by Napoléon III. 

Claude Gueux was written in 1834. Claude Gueux, the eponymous character, is a craftsman from Troyes. He lives with wife and daughter peacefully until the lack of work, of money push him to steal. He’s sent to prison. Since Claude Gueux is a very good and decent men, he rapidly gains the sympathy of his fellow prisoners and the hate of the director of the prison. Claude is also a big eater and the food rations are not enough to calm his hunger. One day, Albin, another prisoner, offers to Claude half of his food because it’s too much for him. Claude and Albin become inseparable. Seeing this friendship, the director sends Albin to another part of the prison. Everyday Claude begs for the return of his friend. Claude gives the director an ultimatum. He decided that if his friend wasn’t given back to him, the director should die. On the last day of the ultimatum, Claude informs his fellow prisoners of his plan. After giving the director one last chance to make everything right, Claude kills him. During the trial, Claude makes an eloquent speech in which he explains why he killed the director. He’s found guilty and sentenced to death. He is then executed. In the epilogue, Hugo criticizes the gap between punishment and education. He considers that  with more education, society wouldn’t need as much punishment.

Hugo offers a profound reflection about the fairness of the justice system. He wrote this short story with the French justice system of the 19th century in mind but is it really different from any justice system nowadays  In my opinion, this short story and the reflection that accompanies it are still accurate, unfortunately. I read recently an article about a 16 years old girl, excellent student in a Florida High School. She did some scientific experiments with standard cleaning products on the school ground. An explosion occurred, no one was hurt, nothing was damaged. The Headmaster recognizes that that it was all a sad and unfortunate incident. Anyhow, the young lady has been expelled from the school and she will be prosecuted as an adult with felony charges. That young lady obviously did something stupid but does it means her whole life has to be ruined because of scientific curiosity ?

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