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Victor Hugo: His Life and Works By G. Barnett Smith Characters: 13641

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

In 1829 Victor Hugo published anonymously his Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné ('The Last Day of a Convict'). It thrilled the heart of Paris by its vivid recitals. While having no pretensions to the character of a regular tale, it was, as a writer in the Edinburgh Review remarked, one of the most perfect things the author had as yet produced. It was the representation of one peculiar state of mind-that of a criminal faced by the certainty of his approaching death under the guillotine. Like Sterne, Hugo had taken a single captive, shut him up in his dungeon, and 'then looked through the twilight of the grated door, to take his picture.' The work is a chronicle of thoughts, a register of sensations; and it is amazing to see what variety and dramatic movement may be imparted to a monologue in which the scene shifts only from, the Bicètre to the Conciergerie, the H?tel de Ville, and the Place de Grève.

Few descriptions could be found in literature to vie with that in which Victor Hugo places the criminal before us as he enters the court to receive his sentence on a lovely August morning. But all the incidents attending the trial, the condemnation, and the execution are depicted with graphic skill and powerful energy. No one knows better than Victor Hugo how to relieve unutterable gloom by some brilliant ray of human affection, and so upon this condemned prisoner he causes to break a temporary vision of youth and innocence. The intensity all through this piece is such as to give the reader a strange realization of the criminal, with his weight of guilt, and his terrible and conflicting emotions.

But the critic of the Edinburgh would have us believe that all this was merely due to a desire by Victor Hugo to exhibit his literary skill. He even calls it absurd to regard the sketch as a pleading against the punishment of death, and roundly denies that the author had any such esoteric purpose. Unfortunately for him, there is conclusive evidence to prove that Victor Hugo had a deeper intent in this painful representation than a mere literary play upon the feelings. In a preface to the edition of 1832 he distinctly avows his purpose: 'It is the author's aim and design that posterity should recognise in his work not a mere special pleading for any one particular criminal, which is always easy and always transitory, but a general and permanent appeal in behalf of all the accused, alike of the present and of the future. Its great point is the right of humanity urged upon society.'

Moreover, there is another powerful argument to be considered. Ever since 1820 Victor Hugo had been deeply moved on the question of capital punishment, and resolved to labour for its abolition. It will be convenient here to review briefly his public utterances on the subject, both before and subsequent to the appearance of Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné. We shall thereby be enabled to keep the literary and personal thread of our narrative intact. In the year above named Victor Hugo had seen Louvel, the murderer of the Duke of Berry, on his way to the scaffold. The culprit was a being for whom he had not the slightest sympathy; but his fate begat pity, and he began to reflect on the anomaly that society should, in cold blood, commit the same act as that which it punished. From that time, observes Madame Hugo, he had an idea of writing a book against the guillotine. Two executions which he witnessed during the next few years strengthened his convictions, and led to the work we have already discussed. Subsequently he wrote Claude Gueux, founded upon the sad and miserable story of a man of that name. Gueux was condemned to death in 1832 for a crime to which the pangs of hunger had impelled him. The case was doubly painful from the fact that the father of Claude, a very old man, had been sentenced to a punishment in the prison of Clairvaux, and the son, in order to bring help to him, committed an act whose consequences brought him within the walls of the same prison. Strenuous exertions were made by Hugo and others to save Gueux, but the Council of Ministers rejected the appeal. The man was executed, and a noble protest which Victor Hugo afterwards issued greatly moved the public conscience, and rendered society still more familiar with the writer's views.

In May, 1839, one Barbès was condemned to death for his share in the insurrection in the Place Royale. Victor Hugo immediately sent this message of appeal to the King:

'By your guardian-angel fled away like a dove,

By your royal child, a sweet and frail reed,

Pardon yet once more, pardon in the name of the tomb!

Pardon in the name of the cradle!'

The King, against the advice of his Ministers, insisted on pardoning Barbès. More than twenty years afterwards the latter figured as a character in Les Misérables, and a correspondence, alike honourable to both, ensued between him and the author. Twice as a peer of France Victor Hugo was called upon to give verdicts in cases where capital punishment would follow conviction, and in both instances he voted in favour of perpetual imprisonment and against the death-penalty. When the question of capital punishment came before the Assembly in 1848, Victor Hugo ascended the tribune and made an impassioned speech, from which I take these extracts:

'What is the penalty of death? It is the especial and eternal mark of barbarism. Wherever the penalty is, death is common, barbarism dominates; wherever the penalty of death is rare, civilization reigns supreme. You have just acknowledged the principle that a man's private dwelling should be inviolate; we ask you now to acknowledge a principle much higher and more sacred still-the inviolability of human life. The nineteenth century will abolish the penalty of death. You will not do away with it, perhaps, at once; but be assured, either you or your successors will abolish it. I vote for the abolition, pure, simple, and definitive, of the penalty of death.'

In March, 1849, Victor Hugo made an unsuccessful appeal in the case of Daix, condemned to death for the affair of Bréa; and in the following year the poet himself appeared as an advocate in the Court of Assize. He defended his eldest son, Charles Hugo, who had been summoned for protesting in his journal, L'évènement, against the execution, which had been accompanied by revolting circumstances. In the course of his eloquent pleadings, Victor Hugo said: 'The real culprit in this matter, if there is a culprit, is not my son. It is I myself. I, who, for a quarter of a century, have not ceased to battle against all forms of the irreparable penalty-I, who, during all this time, have never ceased to advocate the inviolability of human life.... Yes, I assert it, this remains of barbarous penalties-this old and unintelligent law of re

taliation-this law of blood for blood-I have battled against it all my life; and, so long as there remains one breath in my body, I will continue to battle against it with all my power as an author, and with all my acts and votes as a legislator. And I make this declaration'-(the pleader here stretched out his arm towards the crucifix at the end of the hall above the tribunal)-'before the Victim of the penalty of death, whose effigy is now before us, who is now looking down upon us, and who hears what I utter. I swear it, I say, before this sacred tree, on which, nearly two thousand years ago, and for the instruction of men to the latest generation, the laws, instituted by men, fastened with accursed nails the Divine Son of God!' In conclusion, the orator exclaimed, 'My son! thou wilt this day receive a great honour. Thou art judged worthy of fighting, perhaps of suffering, for the sacred cause of truth. From to-day thou enterest the just and true manly life of our time, the struggle for the true. Be proud, thou who art now admitted to the ranks of those who battle for the human and democratic idea! Thou art seated on the bench where Béranger and Lamennais have sat.' Notwithstanding his father's defence, which powerfully moved the whole court, Charles Hugo was sentenced to six months' imprisonment.

While living in exile in Jersey, in 1854, Victor Hugo made an appeal on behalf of a man who was to be hanged in Guernsey. One of his letters was addressed to the people of Guernsey, who petitioned, but in vain, for the life of the convict Tapner. Another was addressed to Lord Palmerston, who gave the usual orders for the execution; and probably no English Minister ever received, either before or since, a communication couched in such burning and passionate language. The writer was literally overwhelming in his indignant rhetoric.

For John Brown, of Harper's Ferry, the anti-slavery enthusiast, Victor Hugo put in a strong plea with the United States. He told that country that 'Brown's executioner would neither be the Attorney Hunter, nor the Judge Parker, nor the Governor Wyse, nor the State of Virginia; it would be, though one shudders to think it, and still more to say it, the great American Republic itself.... When we consider that this nation is the glory of the whole earth; that, like France, England, and Germany, it is one of the organs of civilization, that it has even gone beyond Europe in certain sublime strokes of bold progress, that it is at the summit of the whole world, that it wears on its brow the star of liberty, we are tempted to affirm that John Brown will not die; for we shrink back horrified at the idea of so great a crime being committed by so great a nation!' The writer predicted that 'the murder of Brown would make in the Union a rent, at first concealed, but which would end by splitting it asunder.' John Brown was executed, and Hugo's prediction was verified. The South did indeed discover that the spirit of Brown was 'marching on'; and the American Union was for a time convulsed to its centre, ostensibly on the ground of union, but practically on account of slavery. Brown, the martyr, was justified by the event, and slavery was abolished in the United States.

During the year 1861, a Belgian jury pronounced, on a single occasion only, nine sentences of death. Thereupon a writer, assuming the name of Victor Hugo, published some verses in the Belgian journals, imploring the King's pardon for the nine convicts. Hugo's attention was drawn to the verses, when he replied that he was quite willing for his name to be used, or even abused, in so good a cause. As his alter ego had addressed the King, so he now addressed the nation. He called upon it to arrest this great sacrifice of life, and to abolish the scaffold. 'It would be a noble thing that a small people should give a lesson to the great, and by this fact alone should become greater than they. It would be a fine thing that, in the face of the abominable growth of darkness, in the presence of a growing barbarism, Belgium, taking the place of a great Power in civilization, should communicate to the human race by one act the full glare of light.' The sentence of seven of the condemned men was commuted, but the two remaining convicts were executed.

When the Republic of Geneva revised its constitution in 1862, the principal question remitted to the people was the abolition of the punishment of death. M. Bost, a Genevese author, appealed to Victor Hugo for his intervention in the discussion. The poet replied by a long and exhaustive communication, in which he reviewed the leading cases in various European countries where the scaffold had recently been called into requisition, and he closed with this exordium: 'O people of Geneva, your city is situate on a lake in the Garden of Eden! you live in a blessed place! all that is most noble in creation surrounds you! the habitual contemplation of the beautiful reveals the truth and imposes duties on you! Your civilization ought to be in harmony with nature. Take counsel of all these merciful marvels. Believe in your sky so bright; and as goodness descends from the sky, abolish the scaffold. Be not ungrateful. Let it not be said that in gratitude, and, as it were, in exchange for this admirable corner of the earth, where God has shown to man the sacred splendour of the Alps, the Arve and the Rhone, the blue lake, and Mont Blanc in the glory of sunlight, man has offered to the Deity the spectacle of the guillotine.' The question had already been decided by the retention of the scaffold when this letter reached Geneva, but Victor Hugo now addressed the people. His second letter had an immense effect, and secured the rejection of the constitution proposed by the Conservatives. It also brought over a great number of adherents to the cause of abolition, which ultimately triumphed.

On many subsequent occasions, and notably in connection with Italy and Portugal, Victor Hugo wrote and strove for the abolition of capital punishment. In France his pressing personal appeals more than once availed to procure a commutation of the death-punishment. To his Last Day of a Convict was due the introduction of extenuating circumstances in the criminal laws of France, and he projected a work to be entitled Le Dossier de la Peine de Mort.

It is not my intention here, nor, indeed, is it necessary, to discuss the arguments which may be advanced for or against capital punishment. It has been simply my object to present Victor Hugo in a light which, while it may divide men in their judgments, will unite them in their sympathies. The cases I have cited will be more than sufficient to demonstrate that noble enthusiasm of humanity which forms so conspicuous a feature in Victor Hugo's character.

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