This first major work by Victor Hugo written in 1829 was intended to be a protest against France’s public death penalty, specifically execution by means of the guilotine (which was still a legitimate form of execution in France until 1981).
Hugo makes his case not directly but by means of the criminal’s first person account from the day of his sentencing to his execution six weeks later. The reader cannot help but be moved at the mental torment that this man goes through. By far the most heartrenching scene is near the end where, hours from his execution, he gets to see his soon to be orphaned three year old daughter only to find out that she has no idea who he is and is repulsed by his tears and haggard appearance:
“The poor child had not seen me for a year. She had forgotten me, –my face, my words, my voice. Alas! who, indeed, would recognize me with this beard, these clothes, and this palor? What! already forgotten by the only one whom I wanted to remember me! What! no longer a father, even now! To be condemned never again to hear the word in the language of children, which is so gentle that it cannot belong to that of men – ‘Papa!'”
Most of the details surrounding the identify of the criminal and his crime are left shrouded in ambiquity. Furthermore,while the guilt of the criminal is not in question, whether or not he is remorseful is left murky. This forces the reader to decide whether or not to pity him, and even more importantly – what factors and in what circumstances is pity and compassion merited?
Here are a few thoughts I will takeaway:
– I love Victor Hugo’s writing. I already knew that though.
– Sin is terrifyingly destructive.
– In a world poisoned by sin, God has given government the responsibility to maintain order (Romans 13) which can include the death penalty.
– I am thankful to live in a country that values justice and seeks to maintain it in a humane way
– True justice will never be satisfatorily found this side of eternity.
– The last days of this man’s life would have been very different if he had known the hope of Jesus Christ and the power of His resurrection. That story would have been one of the triumph of God’s grace rather than the tradgedy of sin.
Victor Hugo did not change my view on capital punishment, although I doubt I will ever be excited about it.