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Literature / The Last Day of a Condemned Man

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In 1829, a slim book appeared in France. It was called Le dernier jour d'un condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned Man), and the plot conformed to the title. That topic, augured by the title, was covered in such heretofore unthinkable detail that, at the time of its publication, it caused something of a scandal among the reading public.

The short novel, whose first edition was published anonymously, was written by a man who, sick of shutting himself in and imagining himself in the shoes of the condemned man every time he saw the people of Paris rushing to the spectacle of a public execution on the Place de Grève, decided to try to do something about it. His name was Victor Hugo. The Last Day of a Condemned Man was his first mature work. It is not as well known as some of his other writings.


The book is in the form of a journal, and it chronicles about six weeks, although the span of time in which the journalling is accomplished is more like one week.

Fyodor Dostoevsky really, really liked this book, calling it Hugo's "masterpiece". This may have to do with the fact that Dostoyevsky had gone through the very same experience as the man in the book.

Contains examples of:

  • Age-Appropriate Angst: The main character is consistently acknowledged by himself and others to be a young man.
  • All Crimes Are Equal: The other condemned man, whom the protagonist encounters at the Conciergerie (see "Justified Criminal," below), explains that he was sentenced to death not so much because he killed people as a highwayman, but because he committed a third crime; he could have stolen a handkerchief, and it would still have resulted in the death penalty.
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  • All Just a Dream: Played with in the first chapter:
    I have but one thought, one conviction, one certitude: condemned to death! No matter what I do, it is always there, this infernal thought... I have just woken with a start, having been pursued by it and saying to myself: "Oh! It was only a dream!" Well! Even before my heavy eyes had time to open enough to see this baleful thought written in the horrible reality that surrounds me, on the wet and sweating flagstones of my cell, in the pale beams of my night-lamp, in the coarse weave of my clothing, on the armed guard whose pouch of cartridges gleams through the grate of the dungeon, it seems already a voice has murmured in my ear: "Condemned to death!"
  • Author Tract: It's no secret that Hugo wrote the novel singularly to further the abolition of capital punishment.
  • Big "NO!": Only in the comic book adaptation; but the last line, "FOUR O'CLOCK", is a sort of Big "NO!".
  • Cliffhanger: He never finishes his account of the execution because, well, he dies. Hugo intended the manuscript to be taken for a real journal of some condemned man, so he couldn't narrate the actual walk up to the scaffold, only the protagonist's predictions.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The original conceit, when the authorship was (sort of) unknown, was that the journal was possibly real. Hugo even went to far as to publish a handwritten "facsimile" of a page from the "original manuscript"; this facsmile is distinct from simply being a reproduction of a page from a fiction writer's manuscript due to the lengthy explanation posted with it.
  • A Fate Worse Than Death: The hero flips back and forth between whether or not hard labor for life in the bagne of Toulon is worse than execution.
  • Gallows Humor: "Are they afraid I might strangle myself with the mattress?" and "These executioners are gentle fellows." Although that might simply be despairing irony rather than "humor".
  • Happy Place: In final holding, with only hours left to live, the protagonist tries to block out the outside world and distract himself with happy memories. The memory he dwells the longest on is his first kiss, but this only serves to yank him back into the real world when he writes about it and adds, "It is an evening I will remember all my life."
    I closed my eyes, and I put my hands over them, and I tried to forget, to bury the present in the past. As I dreamed, the memories of my childhood and my youth came back to me one by one, gentle, calm, laughing, like islands of flowers in the gulf of black, confused thoughts that swirled in my brain.
  • Hope Spot: It's only really a hope spot for the main character, as the reader probably knows he's doomed, but it's a classic hope spot nonetheless... a What an Idiot! gendarme comes to guard him, tells him that as everybody knows, people executed by guillotine know about winning lottery numbers in advance, and would he mind being a mensch and paying him a visit when he's dead? The main character responds that he'd be glad to, on one condition: that the gendarme change clothes with him. Unfortunately for him, the gendarme may be dumb but he divines the main character's intentions, and he understands the logic of his own idiot superstition enough to want him to be dead.
    I sat down again, mute and even more despairing from all the hope that I had had.
  • Justified Criminal: Hugo was extremely fond of this. The recidivist whom the hero meets at the Conciergerie seems to have been a precursor to Jean Valjean, what with the stolen loaf of bread and the way no one will give him work. He also shows what might have happened if Valjean had never met the bishop. This character was practically doomed right from the start.
    "Listen, here's my life story. I was the son of a good lifter; it's a pity that Charlie took the time one day to do up his tie. Those were the days when then the gallows ruled, by the grace of God. At six years old, I no longer had a father or a mother; in summer, I turned cartwheels in the dust on the side of the highway, so that someone might throw me a sou from the window of a mail carriage; in winter, I went barefoot in the mud, blowing into my hands, my fingers all red; you could see my thighs through my pants. At nine, I began to make use of my mitts."
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: Averted.
  • Last Words
  • Mr. Imagination: The main character characterizes himself as "a dreamer, and passionate." His imagination amplifies his own psychological torture, not only because he thinks about his own death over ... and over ... and over again, but also in that it makes his brain feverish and excitable, escalating agitation into hallucination. After taking a look at the names, inscriptions and graffiti on the walls of his dungeon, a cartoon of a guillotine coupled with the carved names of some infamous killers pushes him over the edge, and he hallucinates that they're all standing in his cell grasping their disembodied heads. Here are some lines from the first chapter that establish his default state as being imaginative, constructing other lives and fantasies:
    Each day, each hour, each minute, had a vagary of its own. My spirit, young and rich, was full of fancies. I would delight in unspooling them one after another, without order or end, embroidering inexhaustible arabesques upon the thin, coarse stuff of life. There were young women, splendid bishops' robes, battles won, theatres brimming with light and sound, and then more young women and shaded walks at night under the leafy branches of the chestnut trees. It was always holiday in my mind. I might think on what I wished, I was free.
  • Nightmare Sequence: The nightmare the main character has in the Conciergerie, about an old woman hiding in his cupboard who bites him on the hand. Dostoyevsky plagiarized paid homage to this dream.
  • No Name Given: The protagonist is never named, nor do we ever learn the circumstances of his crime. This is not to say that he does not have a nuanced personality — if he were True Neutral he'd be boring — but Hugo kept many of the variables of his character as vague as possible, so he could represent every person ever put to death. He treads the middle ground in many details: not an atheist, but not religious enough that a belief in God can console him; not desperately poor or a member of the underclass, but not aristocratic either (if he were he probably wouldn't have gotten the death penalty anyway); not uneducated, but not really an intellectual either (although he does write like Victor Hugo...).
  • Off with His Head!: The instrument of death is the guillotine, of course.
  • Posthumous Character: The book is a journal by an executed author.
  • Primal Fear: Death.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: There are numerous references to real criminals and functionaries, which lend texture, ground it in real life, and establish time and place.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: We can't help but identify with the main character and his universal, human feelings. Also, the fact that he adores his toddler-age daughter, and worries desperately about what is going to happen to her, does a lot to make him sympathetic.
  • There Are No Therapists: Just ineffective chaplains. Justified in that there really were no therapists. Nowadays, of course, someone on Death Row has access to psychiatric care as well as religious attention.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: The protagonist has been sentenced to death. Eventually he knows how much time he has left down to the hour.


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