Last day of a condemned man by Victor Hugo

By Emma Brooks

I recently decided to get back into reading more French books, and thought that it would be good to start with the classics. Originally looking for Les Misérables, I happened upon Last Day of a Condemned Man, which quite frankly looked much more friendly for a fresh start that the huge book of Les Misérables. So I picked it off the shelf and decided to start with a slightly tamer ambition than planned.

About the author:

Victor Hugo is one of France’s most famous authors, who lived at the end of the 19th Century. Aside from Les MiserablesNotre Dame de Paris and Last Day of a Condemned Man, he wrote many other novels and in particular poems that shaped the French literary landscape. Interestingly enough, though he started out a royalist, over the years he would become a fervent Republican.

About the book:

Last Day of a Condemned Man was Hugo’s first novel, written at the age of 26 and in the relatively short period of two and a half months. Through it, his aim is show his contempt for the death penalty and the judicial system, and how someone can find himself on the death row for no particular reason.

Indeed, we do not know who the condemned man is, nor do we know what crime he committed. Instead we sit with him during his last few days and hours of life, as he wonders what on earth he did to deserve ending up in this situation. The story is written with the condemned man as narrator, speaking to us from his cell. We find out that just before he died, he decided that he wanted to record his life and his last moments, and so he sits down to write them.

We start the book and our main character has already been sentenced to death, and is sitting in his cell pondering his fate. The whole novel from beginning to end questions this man’s fate, and whether the death penalty makes any sense. He describes to us what it is like to live in prison, to be in his cell and be laughed at by the other inmates as they know that he is to die.

He describes to us the pity felt by the guardians and the priest who comes to visit him to prepare him for death. He can see their pity for his situation, but in a sense has almost become indifferent to it as he comes closer and closer to his hour of death. He briefly explains to us his situation, the vicious circle that meant that he ended up in prison. But he doesn’t really know why it was he got condemned to death and neither do we.

Most importantly, he describes his trip from the prison block to the cell where he is to be held before execution, and then his trip from the cell to the main square where he will be executed. This is probably the most poignant moment of the book, as he describes not really seeing but mostly hearing the crowd outside, that has gathered to watch his death. He says that he can feel their excitement and their anticipation, that they have all gathered around the square to witness his execution. It’s almost as if it were a public holiday and people were out in the streets to celebrate his death.

As he can feel the crowd’s anticipation, his fear about dying and his regrets about his life increase. He tries desperately to save his life by any means possible, even silly hopeless acts that he know won’t really get him anywhere. But even though he may be a criminal, he realises that he is only human and doesn’t want to die, and why should we want him to?

Victor Hugo’s novel even though it is short, is very powerful. Indeed, as we are inside the mind of the condemned man, it makes him seem more human to us and makes it possible to understand his fears about death. We also start to question why it is that he has been served this fate, and feel horrified at the joy the public is taking in his death. If Hugo’s aim was to criticise the death penalty, then he definitely succeeded.

To anyone who is also trying to pick up their French reading again, or is simply intrigued by some of the great french authors and works of literature, I definitely recommend this book as a great place to start.

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