Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Victor Hugo on the Guillotine

I'm reading Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, and I came across a part where Hugo talks about the experience of actually seeing the guillotine in use. I found it fascinating and from his writing surmised that he must have seen it himself. This led me to wonder when the guillotine ceased to be used in France, since Hugo was writing in the mid-19th century, and the answer shocked me; 1977. The last public beheading by guillotine was in 1939, and the last one to take place behind prison walls was not until 1977, just a few years before the death penalty was abolished in France.

Here's what Victor Hugo had to say:-
"One may feel a certain indifference to the death penalty, one may refrain from pronouncing upon it, from saying yes or no, so long as one has not seen a guillotine with one's own eyes: but if one encounters one of them, the shock is violent; one is forced to decide, and to take part for or against...The guillotine is the concretian of the law, it is called vindicte; it is not neutral, and it does not permit you to remain neutral...All social problems erect their interrogation point around this chopping-knife. The scaffold is a vision. The scaffold is not a piece of carpentry; the scaffold is not a machine; the scaffold is not an inert bit of mechanism constructed of wood, iron and cords.

It seems as though it were a being, possessed of I know not what sombre initiative; one would say that this piece of carpenter's work saw, that this machine heard, that this mechanism understood, that this wood, this iron, and these cords were possesed of will...The scaffold is the accomplice of the executioner; it devours, it eats flesh, it drinks blood; the scaffold is a sort of monster fabricated by the judge and the carpenter, a spectre which seems to live with a horrible vitality composed of all the death which it has inflicted."

1 comment:

  1. I remembered being shocked about the fact this was still being done in the 20th century.