This book is not an enjoyable read, not in the usual sense of the word. In fact, it caused me mental and physical discomfort, if not downright pain. The only other book that had a similar effect is Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. These two books capture the last agonies of two men condemned to death, one by a terminal disease, the other by the death penalty, a social disease.
“It’s wrong to interest me in somebody I don’t know.”
One of the criticisms against this book is that the readers know nothing about the main character, except that he committed some crime and was sentenced to death. Why should we care?
Ironically, that is exactly how the genius of Hugo is manifested. He brings to life a human being with more feelings, thoughts, humor, perceptions sharpened by suffering, memories and experiences in a few days, than many of us have in years. He builds such a rapport between the character and the readers that, despite not knowing much about him, we feel that if he were put to death, a part of us would perish along with him.
“Condemned to Death!” Aren’t we all?
The Death Penalty
Tolstoy and Hugo have made the most cogent arguments against the death penalty and the fundamental flaws of the penal systems in general. The law does not heal, it only kills. Does the government have the right to take away the life of a human being when it has not given him life in the first place?
The death penalty and the gulag of prisons are society’s hidden closet, its way of hiding its shameful aspects out of sight, just as it dumps its own excrement and toxic waste into the ocean and numerous dumping sites. The source of the toxins still exists and continues to corrupt our lives while we bury our heads in the sand.
Besides, are they sure you don’t suffer? Who told them that? Has anyone heard of a severed head covered in blood that got up on the edge of the basket and shouted to the crowd, “That didn’t hurt”?