Executioners and Coincidences

I think I’ve written before about how much I enjoy it when I spot common threads betwixt different works I’ve read. I’m even notorious at my book club for springing “book club trivia” pop quizzes on my fellow members. When we read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle I of course contributed, “Now, can you tell me what other books we’ve read that prominently featured dogs?” (for those playing at home, we’ve also read Call of the Wild, Marley and Me, and Travels with Charley). Or when we read Cry of the Kalahari, I was compelled to ask, “In what other books that we’ve read does at least some of the action take place in Africa?” (ha! I may have to look that one up myself now, but I know two were A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah, and Napoleon’s Pyramids by William Dietrich). Sure, I’m probably annoying to them sometimes, but I like when your “collected readings” begin to form associations in your brain and knit together. I think it’s part of the process of becoming more literary – is it any wonder I slightly rejoice when I sense this happening?

(Above: Franz Kafka) It was quite a coincidence this past weekend when, as part of catching up on my 2011 reading project, I read two short stories back-to-back that both featured executioners. The first was Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” a disturbing tale set in an unnamed locale and featuring unnamed characters, described only by their positions (The Officer, The Soldier, The Traveller, and The Condemned Man). The second was Thomas Hardy’s story, “The Three Strangers.” This one takes place at a party on the eve of an execution in a nearby village (quite the spectator “sport” not so long ago in history). The three strangers who drop in on the party are, unbeknownst to the other attendees, all related in some way to the upcoming event. I didn’t particularly enjoy either of these stories, if you’ve got to know the truth. I’m a huge Thomas Hardy fan, but this one didn’t do much for me, other than early in the story when he describes the countryside and the home where the party is held. I don’t have much experience with Kafka (other than a passing acquaintance with the unfortunate Gregor Samsa) and found his story too twisted for my tastes.

Reading the two stories in succession, however, did get me thinking about execution and executioners and pondering how often my reading has touched on those subjects. I was shocked (shocked!) to find many instances, a lot of them from books I’ve read recently. Some examples: In my favorite Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities, the climax takes place on the guillotine stand during the so-called Reign of Terror.

Earlier this year, I read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, where much discussion is given to capital punishment since Nikolai had witnessed a “near execution” at some point (and the author himself nearly died at the hand of a firing squad “in real life”). I could also include The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as dealing with “mass executions” (what a disgusting term!). There was also John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, a non-fiction book about a wrongly accused man who spent years and years on death row awaiting execution. There’s also Slaughterhouse Five, which includes an execution of the one POW who stole the teapot (or whatever it was). So it goes. The first book I thought of, though, was Stephen King’s The Green Mile. It at least features, with the exception of that one despicable guy (Percy?), more humane “executioners.” Maybe this is why it was the first that popped into my head.

Well, I’ve pretty much succeeded in bringing myself down now. Hopefully you’ve stopped reading by this point. 🙂 When you think about it, it’s pretty shameful that we, as a species, even have the term “executioner” as an acknowledged profession. That would be awkward to explain to an intelligent, benevolent Alien visitor to the planet wouldn’t it?

What about you? What literary coincidences have you encountered in your recent reading travels?


  1. Dee said,

    September 29, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    On the subject of executioners: interesting too it that this is murder by
    proxy – as wars are fought …. sometimes the executioners do not want
    to do this …. but the person(s) giving the order have a form of cowardice/detachment/denial that enables them, with their power, to distance themselves from the act which they have given the order to be carried out …….


    • Jay said,

      September 29, 2011 at 7:59 pm

      Hi Dee,
      Indeed, yes. I wonder if there would be less killing and murder in the world if everyone had to do their own “dirty work”


  2. Dale said,

    September 29, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    There was another one that our bookclub read. I can’t recall the title off the top of my head (I need to go to our website!). I think we read it last summer (not this past summer). It was about a woman with a daughter who was trying to free a man on death row. You don’t know whether she was successful or not until the very end.


    • Jay said,

      September 29, 2011 at 7:57 pm

      Ah, yes. I forgot about that one too. You’re thinking of Conviction by Richard North Patterson. I truly was surprised at how common a theme this seemed to be in my reading.


  3. Megan said,

    September 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Well, just from this blog post I’ve come across two coincidences. First, your favorite Dickens book is Tale of Two Cities, as is mine. Second, I just yesterday finished reading The Hangman’s Daughter, in which the main character is an executioner (not his daughter, as you’d believe from the title). It was enjoyable but not particularly noteworthy. Although I was interested to learn that the author based the book on his own family, which was apparently the official town executioner for generations and generations in this particular German town.

    But speaking of books with executions in them, there’s always East of Eden. For some reason, a scene that Samuel remembers from his childhood of being with his father and ending up caught up in a crowd witnessing a hanging has always stuck with me.


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