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“A Hanging” by George Orwell

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People sometimes undergo difficult situations when they are forced to carry out orders by authority. George Orwell’s “A Hanging” is a descriptive essay about capital punishment. The setting of this essay is placed in an early twentieth-century prison in Burma, a country ruled by the British Empire. Considering that George Orwell was an imperial police officer in Burma, it is highly probable that this essay is related to his own experience. The essay, presented through the eyes of the narrator, examines primitive human nature. Orwell develops his essay through characters who perform their job responsibilities, through an appearance of a dog to show humanity, and through the inner conflict of the narrator as he participates in and observes the execution.

In terms of responsibility, as colonial officers, all of the characters perform their jobs in an impersonal way. In the morning, the jailers prepare the routine execution for their prisoners who are kept in “animal cages.” As the officers follow the directions to execute a Hindu prisoner, who has barely a motive to live, they treat the prisoner in such a way it shows that they do not care about his feelings. Two tall Indian warders surround the puny prisoner and bring him to the gallows. To emphasize the importance of getting the job done and moving to the next responsibility, the head jailer shouts, “Well quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over” (Orwell “A Hanging” 1216). The head jailer demonstrates that the prisoner is only an object to be eliminated, and it is his duty to execute on time and to manage other prisoners. When it is about time for the execution, the prisoner calls “his god” loudly: “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!” All who are present, as well as the narrator, desire to stop the sound by executing the prisoner promptly because, not only does the sound annoy them, but they also want to finish the job. After the routine execution, the officers chat, joke, laugh and drink, even though the prisoner executed was human like them.

Orwell uses a dog as a device to demonstrate humanity towards capital punishment. The dog’s unexpected appearance at the hanging makes the officers think of themselves. As the dog runs up to the prisoner being executed, the hanging is interrupted. The dog does not recognize a
difference between the prisoner and the officers; the dog sees the prisoner as a human being who is able to love or be loved and play with the dog. Even though one of the jailers tries to turn the dog away, the dog returns again and again. Orwell states:

A dog, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard. It came bounding among us with a loud volley of barks, and leapt round us wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together. It was a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah. For a moment it pranced round us, and then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a dash for the prisoner and, jumping up, tries to lick his face. Everyone stood aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog. (Orwell “A Hanging” 1216)

The appearance of the dog symbolizes humanity and empathy for the prisoner. The observation of the dog’s action makes people aware of the reality of what is happening. The characters recognize what they are doing as colonial officers, but they cannot express what they think about their murderous action. For example, the officers do not express how they feel as they wait for the prisoner to be put to death, but when the tension gets high: “Everyone had changed color” (Orwell “A Hanging” 1216). Once the execution is carried out, the officers experience an emotional catharsis as the tension, anxiety, and distress of the execution are alleviated. The narrator describes this feeling by saying “An enormous relief had come upon us now that the job was done” (Orwell “A Hanging” 1217).

Throughout the story, the narrator exposes the inner conflict between duty and humanity. The execution is especially difficult for the narrator because the prisoner being executed is a man like himself. During the procedure of the execution, the narrator looks at the tiny movement of the prisoner who is going to be hanged soon: “…In spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path” (Orwell “A Hanging” 1216). The narrator had assumed that the prisoner would not care about the puddle because it seems to be of little significance as compared to his execution. From that point on, the narrator views the prisoner as a human like himself. The narrator describes the prisoner and the officers as “He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world” (Orwell “A Hanging” 1216).

The prisoner is “a healthy, conscious man” who is being destroyed by other healthy men. It is an epiphany for the narrator to gain insight into the value of human life; he finds himself in a circumstance where he is doing “the unspeakable wrongness.” This realization is similar to what Orwell explains about the British Empire in his essay “Shooting an Elephant:” “It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism” (Orwell “Shooting an Elephant”). The narrator is upset about what he is doing, but he has to admit the reality of imperialism.

On the surface, all of the characters carry out their duties and are presented as a collective imperial force; however, Orwell convinces his readers of the wrongness of capital punishment through the realization of the characters in “A Hanging.” This realization is that the lives of human beings are equally important, and the officers should be human beings beyond their duties as colonial officers.

Works Cited:

Orwell, George. “A Hanging.” Literature for Compostion. Seventh Edition. Ed. Silvan Barnet, William Burto, William E. Cain. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005. 1215-1218

– – -. “Shooting an elephant.” Online-Literature. The Literature Network. 27 Oct. 2005 .

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