The Last Day of a Condemned Man, by Victor Hugo

A Comedy Apropos of a Tragedy*

* We have considered it proper to reprint here the sort of preface in the form of a dialogue which follows, and which appeared in the fourth edition of The Last Day of a Condemned. We must remember, in reading it, that it was in the midst of political, moral, and literary discussion that the first editions of this work were published. (Edition de 1832.)

Personages

Madame de Blinval
The Chevalier
Ergaste
An Elegaic Poet
A Philosopher
A Fat Man
A Thin Man
Women
A Lackey

A Salon

AN ELEGIAC POET, reading.

The next day, footsteps were seen in the forest,

A dog, whining, wandered along the banks of the river,

    And when the damsel all in tears

    Returned, her heart full of fears,

To watch from the very old tower of an antique châtel,

    She heard her sad sobs, the sad Isaure,

    But she heard no more, the mandore

Of the handsome minstrel!

ALL THE AUDIENCE.
Bravo! Charming! Ravishing!

They clap their hands.

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
There is in that ending an indefinable mystery which brings tears to the eyes.

THE ELEGIAC POET, modestly.
The catastrophe is hidden.

THE CHEVALIER, throwing up his head.
Mandore, minstrel, so romantic!

THE ELEGIAC POET.
Yes, sir, but only the reasonably romantic, the true romantic. What would you have? We must make some concessions.

THE CHEVALIER.
Concessions! concessions! That is how taste declines. I would give all the romantic verses in the world for this simple quatrain:

So by Pride and by Cythere,

Handsome Bernard is warned

That the Art of Loving would on Saturday

Come to sup with the Art of Pleasing.

There is true poetry. The Art of Loving
supping on Saturday with the Art of Pleasing!

Well and good! But to-day it is the mandore, the minstrel. We no longer have fugitive poetry. If I were a poet, I would write fugitive poetry, but I, I am not a poet.

THE ELEGIAC POET.
However, the elegies . . .

THE CHEVALIER.
Fugitive poetry, sir! (Aside to Madame de Blinval) And then châtel is not French; we say castel.

SOMEONE, to the Elegiac Poet.
Note, sir. You say the antique châtel, why not the Gothic?

THE ELEGIAC POET.
Gothic is not in the verse.

SOMEONE.
Ah! That is different.

THE ELEGIAC POET, continuing.
You see, sir, we must limit ourselves. I am not one of those who wish to disorganize French verse, and lead us back to the time of Rousard and of Brébeuf. I am romantic, but in moderation. And so in the emotions. I like the soft, the dreamy, the melancholy, but never the bloody, never the horrible. Veil the catastrophes. I know there are people, fools, with delirious imaginations who — Stop, ladies, have you read the new novel?

THE LADIES.
What novel?

THE ELEGIAC POET.
The Last Day . . .

THE FAT MAN.
Enough, sir! I know what you are going to say. The title alone upsets my nerves.

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
And mine too. It is a frightful book. I have it here.

THE LADIES.
Let us see, let us see.

They pass the book from hand to hand.

SOMEONE, reading.
The Last Day of a . . .

THE FAT MAN.
Pray, madame!

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
Indeed, it is an abominable book, a book which gives one the nightmare, a book that makes one ill.

A WOMAN, aside.
I must read it.

THE FAT MAN.
We must confess that custom is becoming more depraved day by day. My God, what a horrible idea, to develop, to analyze, one after another, all the physical sufferings, all the moral tortures of a man condemned to death, on the day of execution. Is it not atrocious? Can you believe, ladies, that a writer has taken this for a theme, and that there is a public for this writer?

THE CHEVALIER.
It is indeed supremely impertinent.

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
And who is this author?

THE FAT MAN.
There was no name on the first edition.

THE ELEGIAC POET.
It is the same who has written two other novels; ‘pon my honor, I forget the titles. The first began at the Morgue and ended on the scaffold. In each chapter, there was an ogre who ate a child.

THE FAT MAN.
You have read that, sir?

THE ELEGIAC POET.
Yes, sir, the scene was laid in Iceland.

THE FAT MAN.
In Iceland — it is frightful.

THE ELEGIAC POET.
In the other he has odes, ballads, and I know not what all, he has also monsters who have corps bleus.

THE CHEVALIER, laughing.
Corbleu! That ought to make a glorious rhyme.

THE ELEGIAC POET.
He has also published a drama — he calls it A drama — in which is found this beautiful line:

To-morrow, the twenty-fifth of June one thousand six hundred and fifty-seven.

SOMEONE.
Ah, what verse!

THE ELEGIAC POET.
It could be written in figures, you see, ladies:

To-morrow, 25 June, 1657.

He laughs. They laugh.

THE CHEVALIER.
That is something peculiar to the poetry of to-day.

THE FAT MAN.
Ah! He does not know how to versify, That fellow! What is his name?

THE ELEGIAC POET.
He has a name as difficult to pronounce as it is to remember. It has Goth, Visigoth, and Ostrogoth in it.

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
He is a nasty man.

THE FAT MAN
An abominable man.

A YOUNG WOMAN.
Some one who knows him has told me . . .

THE FAT MAN.
You know some some one who knows him?

THE YOUNG WOMAN.
Yes, and who told me that he is a sweet simple man who lives in retirement, and who passes his days in playing with his little children.

THE POET.
And his nights in dreaming of works of darkness. It is singular there is a verse that I found quite naturally: And his nights in dreaming of works of ténèbres (darkness). With a good pause. I have only the other line to find. Good! Funebres (funereal).

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
Quid quid tenabat dicere, versus erat.

THE FAT MAN.
You say that this author has little children. Impossible, madame. When he has written such a work as that! Such an atrocious novel!

SOMEONE.
But what is the object of the work?

THE POET.
How should I know?

A PHILOSOPHER.
It seems to have for an object the abolition of capital punishment.

THE FAT MAN.
A horror, say I!

THE CHEVALIER.
Ah! so it is a duel with the executioner.

THE POET.
He wishes the guillotine all sorts of terrible things.

THE THIN MAN.
I can imagine it; full of denunciations.

THE FAT MAN.
Not at all. There is hardly two pages of it about capital punishment. All the rest is about the sensations.

THE PHILOSOPHER.
There is the mistake. The subject merits reasoning. A drama or a novel proves nothing. And besides, I have read the book, and it is bad.

THE POET.
Detestable! Is that art? And then too, this criminal, do I know him? No. What has he done? No one knows. Perhaps he is a very bad rascal. No one has the right to interest me in some one I do not know.

THE FAT MAN.
He certainly has not the right to shock his reader by physical suffering. When I see a tragedy, some one kills himself, very good! That makes no difference to me. But a novel makes your hair stand on end, gives you goose-flesh and bad dreams. I was laid up in bed for two days after having read it.

THE PHILOSOPHER.
Added to that it is a cold and stiff book.

THE POET.
Book! Book!

THE PHILOSOPHER.
Yes — and as you said a while ago, sir, it is not of the genuine æsthetic sort. I am interested in the abstract. I see no personality in it equal to my own, and the style is neither simple nor clear. That is how you put it, is it not?

THE POET.
Undoubtedly, undoubtedly. Personalities are not necessary.

THE PHILOSOPHER.
The condemned man is not interesting.

THE POET.
How is he interesting? He has committed crime and has no remorse, I would have done differently. I would have related the story of my condemned. Born of honest parents. A good education. Love. Jealousy. A crime which is not a crime. And then, remorse! remorse! plenty of remorse! But the human laws are implacable; he must die. And then I would have treated the question of capital punishment. All in good season.

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
Ah! Ah!

THE PHILOSOPHER.
Pardon me. The book, according to you, proves nothing. A special case does not govern all.

THE POET.
Well! so much the better; why not have chosen for a hero, for instance —-Malesherbes, the virtuous Malesherbes? his last day, his prayers? Oh I then, we would have had a fine and noble spectacle! I would have cried, I would have shuddered, I would have wanted to mount the scaffold with him.

THE PHILOSOPHER.
Not I.

THE CHEVALIER.
Nor I. He was a revolutionary, at the bottom, your M. de Malesherbes.

THE PHILOSOPHER.
Malesherbes’ scaffold proves nothing against capital punishment in general.

THE FAT MAN.
Capital punishment! Why should we bother about that. What has it done to you? This author must certainly be very ill-bred to come and give us the nightmare on this subject with his book!

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
Ah! Yes, he must have a very bad heart!

THE FAT MAN.
He forces us to look into prisons, into the galleys, into Bicêtre. It is very disagreeable. We know very well that they are filthy places; but what does it matter to society?

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
Those who have made the laws are not children.

THE PHILOSOPHER.
Ah! meanwhile, in presenting things truthfully . . .

THE THIN MAN.
That is precisely what he lacks; truth. What can a poet know of such things? He must be at least a public prosecutor. Stop, I have read, in a review which a journal had on this book, that the condemned said nothing when they read his sentence; very good, but I have seen a condemned man, who, at a loud cry — you see.

THE PHILOSOPHER.
Allow me . . .

THE THIN MAN.
Wait; gentlemen, the guillotine, the Grève, are in bad taste; — and that proves that this is a book that corrupts the taste, and renders you incapable of pure fresh emotions. These are the supporters of wholesome literature. I would like to be a member of the Academie Française . . . But here is Ergaste, who is one already. What do you think of The Last Day of a Condemned?

ERGASTE.
Upon my word, sir, I have not, and will not, read it. I dined to-day with Madame de Sénange, and the Marquise de Morival spoke of it to the Duc de Melcourt. They say there are personalities against the magistry, and, above all, against President d’Alimont. The Abbè de Horicour has been insulted. It seems that there is a chapter against religion, and a chapter against monarchy. If I were the royal prosecutor! . . .

THE CHEVALIER.
Ah! yes, indeed, royal prosecutor! How about the charter, and the liberty of the press? Meanwhile a poet tries to suppress capital punishment and you agree that it is odious. Ah! ah! under the old régime, who would have been allowed to publish a work against torture! . . . But, since the fall of the Bastile, we can write anything. Books do frightful harm.

THE FAT MAN.
Frightful! — We were all calm, thinking of nothing. It is true that in France we occasionally cut off a head here and there; but only two or three, at the most, in a week. And all is done without noise and without scandal. No one says anything. No one thinks of it. Not at all, until this book appears. . . . This book which gives you a horrible headache!

THE THIN MAN.
Think of the feelings of a juryman after having read it!

ERGASTE.
It would trouble his conscience.

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
Ah! books! books! Who said that of a novel?

THE POET.
It is certain that books are very often a poison ruinous to social order.

THE THIN MAN.
Without taking in consideration speech, which the romantiques would also like to revolutionize.

THE POET.
Consider, sir, there are romantiques and romantiques.

THE THIN MAN.
Bad taste, bad taste.

ERGASTE.
You are right. Very bad taste.

THE THIN MAN.
There is no answering that.

THE PHILOSOPHER, leaning on a ladies’ arm-

chair.

There are things said in it that are not mentioned even in the rue Mouffetard.

ERGASTE.
Ah! The abominable book!

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
Hi! don’t throw it into the fire. It is borrowed.

THE CHEVALIER.
Talk of to-day. All is depraved; taste and manners. Does it remind you of our days, Madame de Blinval?

MADAME DE BLINVAL.
No, sir, not at all.

THE SUITOR.
We were the gayest, easy going, set of people. Always beautiful fêtes, and pretty verses. It was charming. Was there ever anything so gallant as the madrigal which M. de la Harpe composed in honor of the grand ball which Madame la Maréchale de Mailly gave in seventeen hundred and . . . the year of the execution of Damiens?

THE FAT MAN, sighing.
Happy days! Now manners are horrible, and books are likewise. It is Boileau’s beautiful line:

And the fall of the axe follows the decadence of manners.

THE PHILOSOPHER, aside to the poet.
Do they sup in this house?

THE POET.
Yes, by and by.

THE THIN MAN.
Meanwhile they wish to abolish capital punishment, and in order to do so write novels that are cruel, immoral and in bad taste, such as The Last Day of a Condemned.

THE FAT MAN.
Stop, my dear fellow, let us speak no more of this atrocious book; and, since I have met you, tell me, what are you going to do about the man whose petition We rejected three weeks ago?

THE THIN MAN.
Ah! Have a little patience! I must go. I must have air. On my return. If that is too late, however, I will write to my deputy . . .

A LACKEY, entering.
Supper is served.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38