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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

In fact cheap copies of Le Dernier Jour


are certainly not ill set off

by the two shorter pieces, both of fairly early date, but the one a little before and the other a little after _Notre-Dame de Paris_, which usually accompany it in the collected editions. Of these _Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamne_ is, with its tedious preface, almost two-thirds as long as _Bug-Jargal_ itself; the other, _Claude Gueux_, contents itself with thirty pages. Both are pieces with a purpose--manifestos of one of Hugo's most consistent and most irrational crazes--the objection to capital punishment.[95] There is no need to argue against this, the immortal "Que MM. les assassins," etc., being, though in fact the weakest of a thousand refutations, sufficient, once for all, to explode it. But it is not irrelevant to point out that the two pieces themselves are very battering-rams against their own theory. We are not told--the objection to this omission was made at the time, of course, and Hugo's would-be lofty waving-off of this is one of the earliest of many such--what the condemned person's crime was. But the upshot of his lucubrations during these latest hours of his is this, that such hours are almost more uncomfortable than the minutes of the actual execution can possibly be. As this is exactly one of the points on which the advocates of the punishment, whether from the point of view of deterrence or from that of retribution, chiefly rely, it seems something of a blunder to bring it out with all the power of a poet and a rhetorician. We _want_ "M. l'Assassin," in fact,
to be made very uncomfortable--as uncomfortable as possible--and we want M. l'Assassin, in intention or deliberation, to be warned that he will be so made. "Serve him right" sums up the one view, "De te fabula" the other. In fact cheap copies of _Le Dernier Jour_, supplied to all about to commit murder, would be highly valuable. Putting aside its purpose, the mere literary power is of course considerable if not consummate; it hardly pretends to be a "furnished" _story_.

[Sidenote: _Claude Gueux._]

The piece, however, is tragic enough: it could hardly fail to be so in the hands of such a master of tragedy, just as it could hardly fail to be illogical in the hands of such a paralogician. But _Claude Gueux_, though it ends with a murder and an attempt at suicide and an execution, is really, though far from intentionally, a farce. The hero, made (by the "fault of society," of course) a criminal, though not a serious one, thinks himself persecuted by the prison director, and murders that official. The reader who does not know the book will suppose that he has been treated as Charles Reade's wicked governor treated Josephs and Robinson and the other victims in _It is Never too Late to Mend_. Not at all. The redoubtable Claude had, like the great Victor himself and other quite respectable men, an equally redoubtable appetite, and the prison rations were not sufficient for him. As he was a sort of leader or prison shop-steward, and his fellow-convicts looked up to him, a young fellow who was not a great eater used to give Claude part of his allowance. The director, discovering this, removed the young man into another ward--an action possibly rather spiteful, possibly also only a slight excess, or no excess at all, of red-tapeism in discipline. Claude not merely asks reasons for this,--which, of course, even if respectfully done, was an act of clear insubordination on any but anarchist principles,--but repeats the enquiry. The director more than once puts the question by, but inflicts no penalty. Whereupon Claude makes a harangue to the shop (which appears, in some astounding fashion, to have been left without any supervision between the director's visits), repeats once more, on the director's entrance, his insubordinate enquiry, again has it put by, and thereupon splits the unfortunate official's skull with a hatchet, digging also a pair of scissors, which once belonged to his (left-handed) wife, into his own throat. And the wretches actually cure this hardly fallen angel, and then guillotine him, which he takes most sweetly, placing at the last moment in the hand of the attendant priest, with the words _Pour les pauvres_, a five-franc piece, which one of the Sisters of the prison hospital had given him! After this Hugo, not contented with the tragedy of the edacious murderer, gives us seven pages of his favourite rhetoric in _saccade_ paragraphs on the general question.


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