My understanding of death and feelings about it have changed since my mother died and I saw this happen and what a corpse is. I had an intellectual understanding but experience has driven home its finality and cruelty too -- even when the person goes apparently peacefully. Perhaps many in the US do not and that enables this continuing blight-spread of state murder. Listen to the song and then the case of Terry Williams: he was sexually abused for years by the men he finally killed, and then read Hugo's novella, The Last Day in the Life of a Condemned Man. It ought to be required reading for everyone, each person on this earth. Many would probably refuse to read on, would hate it. I wish I were Henry Fielding and could come up with an ironical explanation for that.
What's most powerful here and in the story or text itself is the senselessness of the cruelty of what's being done, the indifference of everyone concerned to the man about to be killed -- in this case still horrifically (the guillotine). Also how little attention is paid un print or by talk to when the killing is horrific.
I keep remembering Trollope's first novel (Macdermots of Ballycloran) which also dwells on a man wrongly murdered by the Irish court authorities as a scapegoat. Trollope does dwell on his time in prison and a little of his agon before the waiting for death, but not just before. Then we revert to a friend who loves him (a Catholic priest) and tries to save in him a chapter later cut by Trollope. His book was a success d'estime quietly; in the reviews it was ridiculed and by readers mostly ignored. So he never wrote quite in this way again.
I remember movies I've seen about people condemned to death, but nothing so incisive about what's involved and the profound inhumanity (what a word for this) of it all. It was hard to read through to the end the way Primo Levi's If this be Man and The Truce are hard to read, or Rivette's film of Diderot's La Religieuse hard to watch. TO my mind it's "up there" in importance and greatness with these three works, as well as Voltaire's Candide.
I think the power comes from the understatement and the insistence on how no one around the condemned man enters at all sympathetically into his case. The complete failure of imagination of everyone around him. They regard him as not someone about to die; clearly they do this deliberately in order to use him the way they do.
Not one person moves a finger to help him escape -- but then this not one person doing the slightest thing to help in many areas of life is true. Only someone with some connection or power. Here I thought to myself we see the idealization Hugo avails himself of in Les Miserables for Jean Valjean again and again escapes.
I've a book by Antony Favazza on self-mutilation I've mentioned before: he says that self-mutiliation is common in our society; it's only those not socially countenanced (encouraged even) that horrify, and goes on to talk of beheadings (guillotines and we can include electric chairs) as more than a form of state terror: they are a group pathology, a ritual the group wants, horrifying but clearly true.
See also on line : The French Forum, Volume 32, Number 3, Fall 2007:The Prison-House of Revolutionary Memory
The Politics of Oblivion in Michelet, Hugo, and Dumas by Göran Blix (Princeton University)