"There is no capital punishment here for one thing."
"Is there over there?"
"Yes, I saw an execution in France, at Lyons. Schneider took me
over with him to see it."
"What, did they hang the fellow?"
"No, they cut off people's heads in France."
"What did the fellow do? - yell?"
"Oh no - it's the work of an instant. They put a man inside a
frame and a sort of broad knife falls by machinery - they call the
thing a guillotine - it falls with fearful force and weight-the
head springs off so quickly that you can't wink your eye in
between. But all the preparations are so dreadful. When they
announce the sentence, you know, and prepare the criminal and tie
his hands, and cart him off to the scaffold - that's the fearful
part of the business. The people all crowd round - even women -
though they don't at all approve of women looking on."
"No, it's not a thing for women."
"Of course not - of course not! - bah! The criminal was a fine
intelligent fearless man; Le Gros was his name; and I may tell
you - believe it or not, as you like - that when that man stepped
upon the scaffold he cried, he did indeed, - he was as white as a
bit of paper. Isn't it a dreadful idea that he should have cried
- cried! Whoever heard of a grown man crying from fear - not a
child, but a man who never had cried before - a grown man of
forty-five years. Imagine what must have been going on in that
man's mind at such a moment; what dreadful convulsions his whole
spirit must have endured; it is an outrage on the soul that's
what it is. Because it is said 'thou shalt not kill,' is he to be
killed because he murdered some one else? No, it is not right,
it's an impossible theory. I assure you, I saw the sight a month
ago and it's dancing before my eyes to this moment. I dream of
The prince had grown animated as he spoke, and a tinge of colour
suffused his pale face, though his way of talking was as quiet as
ever. The servant followed his words with sympathetic interest.
Clearly he was not at all anxious to bring the conversation to an
end. Who knows? Perhaps he too was a man of imagination and with
some capacity for thought.
"Well, at all events it is a good thing that there's no pain when
the poor fellow's head flies off," he remarked.
"Do you know, though," cried the prince warmly, "you made that
remark now, and everyone says the same thing, and the machine is
designed with the purpose of avoiding pain, this guillotine I
mean; but a thought came into my head then: what if it be a bad
plan after all? You may laugh at my idea, perhaps - but I could
not help its occurring to me all the same. Now with the rack and
tortures and so on - you suffer terrible pain of course; but then
your torture is bodily pain only (although no doubt you have
plenty of that) until you die. But here I should imagine the most
terrible part of the whole punishment is, not the bodily pain at
all - but the certain knowledge that in an hour, - then in ten
minutes, then in half a minute, then now - this very instant- your
soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man--
and that this is certain, certain! That's the point - the
certainty of it. Just that instant when you place your head on
the block and hear the iron grate over your head - then - that
quarter of a second is the most awful of all.
"This is not my own fantastical opinion - many people have thought
the same; but I feel it so deeply that I'll tell you what I
think. I believe that to execute a man for murder is to punish
him immeasurably more dreadfully than is equivalent to his crime.
A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed
by a criminal. The man who is attacked by robbers at night, in a
dark wood, or anywhere, undoubtedly hopes and hopes that he may
yet escape until the very moment of his death. There are plenty
of instances of a man running away, or imploring for mercy - at
all events hoping on in some degree - even after his throat was
cut. But in the case of an execution, that last hope - having
which it is so immeasurably less dreadful to die, - is taken away
from the wretch and certainty substituted in its place! There is
his sentence, and with it that terrible certainty that he cannot
possibly escape death - which, I consider, must be the most
dreadful anguish in the world. You may place a soldier before a
cannon's mouth in battle, and fire upon him - and he will still
hope. But read to that same soldier his death-sentence, and he
will either go mad or burst into tears. Who dares to say that any
man can suffer this without going mad? No, no! it is an abuse, a
shame, it is unnecessary - why should such a thing exist?
Doubtless there may be men who have been sentenced, who have
suffered this mental anguish for a while and then have been
reprieved; perhaps such men may have been able to relate their
feelings afterwards. Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish and
dread. No! no! no! No man should be treated so, no man, no man!"
- The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky