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Oil painting by Daniel Saubès
Paris, Houses of Victor Hugo Paris-Guernsey
© Paris Musées
1802 – 1885
French poet, playwright, writer, novelist and deputy
“The death penalty is the particular and eternal sign of barbarity. Wherever the death penalty is dispensed, barbarity prevails; wherever the death penalty is rare, civilisation reigns.”

Victor Hugo

In 1823, Victor Hugo was only 21 years old when he published his first text on the abolition of capital punishment, Han of Iceland. For him, it is an absolute conviction, the death penalty is not compatible with justice. Everything in his work proclaims it. His biographers explain the poet's commitment through the visions of torture he had to face during his childhood and adolescence. Nine years old and living in Spain, the young Victor attends the exhibition of a wooden trestle where a man is about to be bound. Then comes the image of the morbid spectacle of a thief branded with a hot iron by the executioner. But the real trauma is that of the public execution of Louvel, which he attends. He's eighteen. He wrote this moral shock seven years later, the day after the beheading of Honoré Ulbach – condemned for the assassination of Aimée Millot who had dismissed him – on September 10, 1827, in Le Dernier Jour d'un condamné (published in 1829).

Can art change an opinion? Does literature have any weight in the abolitionist struggle? In all of his abolitionist literary work, Victor Hugo seeks to create an impact on the reader. It describes with precision and intensity the guillotine, a decapitating machine, but also the feelings of the men ready to mount the scaffold, and the injustice of such punishment. His literary impulses are fiery and the committed activist is joined by undeniable qualities as a writer and orator. From then on, Victor Hugo had the will to defend his ideas even beyond writing, in the public square. It goes from fiction to action. His first attempt came when he was elected Peer of France. He undertakes to convince his colleagues, during the trial of Pierre Lecomte, to set aside the supreme punishment. This first attempt is in vain. Hugo managed to persuade only two other voters to replace execution with life imprisonment, and Lecomte was guillotined on June 8, 1846. The poet's words nevertheless impressed the members of the Chamber of Peers, who had counted on the Royal pardon.

At the same time, the writer's abolitionist texts spread, in the form of articles, essays, novels or even in his diary: Ode against the death penalty (1830), Claude Gueux (1834), Literature and philosophy intertwined (1834), The Execution of Louis XVI (1840), The Guillotine in Algiers (1842), Dictated by me on June 6 (1846), Journal of what I learn every day (1846), Visit to the concierge (1846), Law on prisons, speech project (1847) until La Peine de mort – speech to the Constituent Assembly, September 15, 1848. The humanist commitments of Victor Hugo really materialize following the revolution of 1848 but in the Chamber, during the debates on the capital punishment, the Hugolian argument was not enough to switch people's minds to the abolition camp. Whether it is a Christian ideal: “We ask you to consecrate […] the inviolability of human life […] There are three things which belong to God and which do not belong to man: the irrevocable, the irreparable, the indissoluble. Woe to man if he introduces them into his laws [1]”, from a civilizational argument: “The death penalty is the special and eternal sign of barbarism. Wherever the death penalty is imposed, barbarism dominates; wherever the death penalty is rare, civilization reigns” or even with a prophetic and guilt-inducing word "Don't doubt it, tomorrow you will abolish it, or your successors will abolish it [2]", the Assembly does not follow the few deputies who, like Hugo, vote without concession for "the pure, simple and definitive abolition of the death penalty". It is a second failure for the politician who however never abandons his cause. His texts aimed at awakening the world to the need to repeal the supreme punishment continue to flourish at a steady pace until the end of his life, with the publication of Arabi in 1882.

Thanks to his immense popularity, Hugo made it possible to bring to public debate a subject that had hitherto been far from the concerns of this people that he had defended so much and so much.

Marie Bardiaux-Vaïente

[1] Victor Hugo, Writings on the Death Penalty.
[2] Ibid.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man

Author: Victor Hugo
Country: France
Genre : Novel
Publication date: 1929

This novel is presented as the diary of a death row inmate written during the last twenty-four hours of his life, in which he recounts what he experienced from the beginning of his trial to the moment of his execution, that is to say, approximately five weeks of his life. This narrative, a long interior monologue, is interspersed with anguished reflections and memories of his other life, the "life before". The reader knows neither the name of this man, nor what he did to be condemned, except for the sentence: "I, a wretch who committed a real crime, who shed blood! The work is presented as a raw testimony, both on the anguish of the condemned to death and his last thoughts, the daily moral and physical suffering he undergoes and the living conditions of prisoners, for example in the scene of the shoeing of the convicts. He expresses his feelings about his previous life and his moods.

The Drawings of Victor Hugo: Justice
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