(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Louis Remire, convicted of killing his wife, is serving a twelve-year sentence in the remote penal colony of Saint Laurent de Maroni in French Guiana. His is not, however, the miserable existence endured by less fortunate prisoners, for Louis Remire occupies an official position: He is the colony’s executioner, a privileged station accorded him not only because of his exemplary behavior toward prison officials but also because of his experience as a police officer in his native Lyons, France. Remire’s position brings with it any number of perquisites: He has his own small house on the prison grounds; he is able to wear his own clothes, rather than a prison uniform; he is allowed to grow the mustache of which he is inordinately vain. As if these liberties were not enough, he also receives one hundred francs for every execution, and has been able, he thinks, to save up enough money to establish himself in the outside world on his release. The job is not, however, without its drawbacks. The rest of the convicts hate the executioner and would gladly kill him if given the chance. Louis Remire’s predecessor was found stabbed, then hanged, in the jungle.

Still, despite the potential danger of his position, Louis Remire remains undaunted. His experience as a police officer has taught him to protect himself, and two vicious dogs patrol the grounds of his hut. He thinks of himself as quite above his fellow inmates, and is glad to be separated from them. Unlike them, he is an official of the state, a powerful agent of law and order, and he always feels a sense of accomplishment when, after an execution, he hoists the severed head and pronounces, “Au nom du peuple francais justice est faite” (In the name of the French people, justice is done). He takes pride in every aspect of his work. He keeps his guillotine in perfect working order, its brass fittings shined to perfection, its blade razor sharp.

As the story opens, Louis Remire is preparing for an especially busy day: Six convicts are to be executed the following morning, besides which his assistant has taken ill and has been confined to the hospital. A multiple execution seems a poor time to break in a new apprentice, for everything must go rapidly and without a hitch. The new man seems suitable, however, and Louis Remire takes considerable pride in explaining the complex workings of the guillotine. Satisfied that the assistant knows how to prepare and clean...

(The entire section is 998 words.)