The Last Day of a Condemned Man by Victor Hugo, 1829

This short novel has been written in 1829 by Victor Hugo (see previous review for more details). It’s one of the most studied text in French classrooms. After reading Claude Gueux, I had to reread this one ! One can never have too much Hugo…

The story is told from the main character’s point of view, using the first person. He will remain unnamed until the end. The diary starts five weeks after the main character has been sentenced to death. He recalls his memories of the trial. It started in august and lasted three days during which “this phantasmagoria of judges, witnesses, lawyers, prosecutors of the King, had passed and repassed before me, sometimes ludicrous, sometimes bloody, sometimes dark and fatal.” ( “toute cette fantasmagorie des juges, des témoins, des avocats, des procureurs du roi, passait et repassait devant moi, tantôt grotesque, tantôt sanglante, tantôt sombre et fatale.”) With those few words, we can see how much the character is disoriented, how little he understands what’s going on around him but the accumulation of negative adjectives used to describe the actors of the trial shows the cruelty of the justice system. When the character enters the courtroom, on the last day, to hear his sentence, the atmosphere is joyful, bucolic, as if the character doesn’t realise what is going to happen to him. When the sentence is announced, the character’s world collapses. He will then describes all his thoughts, his fears, the humiliations he endures until the very last day, the day he will die. His daughter is brought to his cell, she doesn’t recognize him and tells him that her father is dead.

(I did the translation of the quote myself because apparently most translators find it ok to summarise when the author uses too many words)

Victor Hugo was strongly against the death penalty, he found it as an useless and inhuman punishment. This little novel is a manifesto to try to convince the French population to abolish it. Hugo was a defender of education before punishment.

This short novel makes you think hard about the death penalty. Maybe because I’ve been raised in Hugo’s country (we abolished the death penalty in 1981 and the last person was executed in 1977) but I agree with him. Whatever your opinion about the death penalty is, The Last Day of a Condemned Man is worth reading.

I’d give it a 10/10!

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