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Les Misérables – guillotine and cross

I’ve started reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and it’s such a long novel that I’m going to start sharing partial impressions and thoughts as I go along.

Victor Hugo was a lifelong opponent of the death penalty, which you may guess from the following passage in Le Miz:

There is something nightmarish about the scaffold when it is standing there ready. It is possible to feel a certain indifference about the death penalty, not to declare yourself, to say yes and no, so long as you have not seen a guillotine with your own eyes. But if you do come across one, it has a violent impact. You are forced to make a decision, to take sides, for or against. Some, like de Maistre, admire it. For others, like Beccaria, it is abhorrent. The guillotine is the law made concrete. Its name is retribution. It is not neutral and does not allow you to remain neutral. Whoever sees it shudders with the most mysterious of shudders.

Hugo doesn’t make the comparison, but all that he writes here was also true of the cross, in the centuries before it became a Christian symbol and crucifixion was abolished.

(Hugo’s observation about neutrality would remain applicable to the Christian-symbol cross, for very different reasons.)

The Roman Empire used crucifixion as a form of capital punishment intended especially as a form of public humiliation. It was a naked display and statement of Roman power, making clear what the consequences of rebellion would be.

The guillotine was similarly an instrument wielded by the national government. That is one reason that it was impossible to remain neutral before the guillotine or the cross: these instruments expressed the control of a single party, demanded assent, and threatened retribution. Such an instrument did not ask for neutrality but rather obedience.

This guillotine passage is not about Christianity but I am surprised at the degree to which the early chapters of Les Misérables are in fact about Christian faith. More on that in a future post.

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