When living in Paris in the late 19th century, Ivan Turgenev got invited to a behind-the-scenes look at a public execution. “The Execution of Tropmann” is what he wrote in response. (And what I recently read for Deal Me in 2017.)
The essay ultimately questions the use of capital punishment - and, more strongly, capital punishment carried out in front of a public audience.
But Turgenev tries not to hammer readers with his point-of-view. His approach is to lay out a narrative of the hours leading up to the execution.
He and a few others are allowed to stay overnight with the prison governor until the 7 a.m. execution. He describes the growing crowd outside, their noise. His own sleeplessness. He provides descriptions of prison officials and the prisoner himself, and the rituals of preparing for the execution. Then the execution, on the guillotine set up overnight. (Turgenev didn't want to look, but hung behind and heard it.)
One issue raised by his account is the extent to which writers should insert themselves into a narrative. To what extent should they introduce their own feelings or thoughts? (How much can they realistically remove themselves?)
Turgenev doesn't preach at the reader. But even when he's just stating a fact, the adjectives he uses and what he chooses to focus on can betray his inclinations and feelings. For instance - the roar of the crowd, persisting all night, he describes at one point as an “elemental force.” Later, he says the gathered people sound “overjoyed." He highlights one individual in the crowd and admits he can’t understand why the young man is intermittently shouting.
A nearby horse he describes as “innocent.” Possibly the most innocent creature on the scene. (Reminds me of the Auden poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” - “and the torturer's horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”)
The conversation in the prison governor’s quarters is “dull” and “platitudinous,” any words sounding flat under the circumstances.
Turgenev can’t help inserting himself into the narrative. He doesn’t overdo it, but he’s there as a character. At the same time, he questions his right to be there ( “... no psychological or philosophic considerations excused me”), as it was an invitation he accepted without thought and didn’t back out of because of pride. In an uneasy way, he invites the reader along as a fellow trespasser, and perhaps as someone who can share his misgivings and horror.
As for Tropmann, Turgenev doesn’t attempt to make an angel of him. He claims the prisoner - convicted of murdering a family - had lied to the police before. But he also calls into question Tropmann’s sanity. And there are disturbing moments when Tropmann, preparing for his execution in the presence of witnesses, seems to perform for them, consciously imprinting himself on the narrative and changing it.
For writers to turn up where they don't necessarily belong, intruding into lives and institutions, opens them to criticism, sometimes tempts them to behave unethically, but also highlights their power and responsibility. Turgenev might have skipped attending the public execution. But did something of value still come from his presence? Was it worth it at the end to bear witness - with deep reluctance - and bring his own feelings to bear on the events?