In France, debate on the death penalty runs from the French Revolution until abolition in 1981. One of the more remarkable contributions to the debate is the novel by Victor Hugo, Le dernier jour d'un condamné [The Last Day of a Man Sentenced to Death], first published in 1829, then reprinted with a long, discursive preface in 1832. Hugo makes the strange decision to tell this story of the last day of a man sentenced to die on the guillotine—at four o'clock in the afternoon—in the first person. The implausibility of the narrative technique is a problem, as are Hugo's decisions never to name his condemned man or to give any specifics about his crime. Yet, the first-person perspective develops an undeniable power: getting inside the consciousness of someone about to have his head cut off by the state makes the obscenity of execution powerfully evident. Hugo's novel serves as a starting point for a reflection on the impossible discourses of capital punishment, from the vindictive to the reassuring, including instances from legal opinions.

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