Set in the author?s native France about the middle of the nineteenth century, this classic short story concerns the events that befell Claude Gueux. Formerly an honest workman, Gueux loses his job and in order to feed his wife and small child turns thief. He is caught however, and sentenced to five years imprisonment in Clairvaux, a former abbey turned prison.
Claude soon settles to prison life and being a clever man finds himself popular with the prisoners and because of this very popularity is hated by the gaolers. The overseer of the prison, a cruel and stubborn man, treats Claude well at first but soon realises that this prisoner has more influence over the unfortunates in his charge than he himself does and consequently begin to resent him.
He starts to taunt Claude almost daily telling him that his wife has become a woman of the streets and that the child has been taken away from her but Claude does not respond. All his cruel jibes count for nothing as Claude accepts them and holds his peace. Only when his cell-mate, a young man called Albin, is taken away does Claude react.
Albin, being of much smaller stature than Claude, had shared his rations with him claiming he could not eat all of it and Claude had accepted it gratefully. Now, fearing he cannot survive without them, begs the overseer to return the young man. His request is refused but every day Claude renews his plea only to be met with the same response. Albin has been removed because the overseer has chosen to remove him and he cannot possibly change his mind.
Claude, driven to despair, decides he must kill his tormentor and tells the inmates of his decision. They try to talk him out of it but to no avail. The only concession Claude is willing to grant is that the overseer be given one more chance. On their next meeting Claude makes one desperate, heartfelt plea but once again is given a curt refusal. Claude kills the man and makes an unsuccessful attempt to take his own life.
Claude is nursed back to health and finds himself once again in court, this time facing a charge of unprovoked murder. He argues that mental torment, although it leaves no visible scars is as painful and demoralising as physical abuse. His defence fails however and Claude now faces the ultimate penalty which he accepts with the same grim fatality as marks his personality.
Claude Gueux is a sad reflection on society?s inability to deal with its own failings. Although written over a century ago has society really changed that much? Could not a man in today?s world find himself treading the same path as the unfortunate Claude or should we allow ourselves to think that we are now much more tolerant and understanding when dealing with those who, through chance circumstances, have strayed from the straight and narrow.