Working as a journalist provided George Orwell with an immense body of first-hand experiences from which to draw his ideas. A Hanging, written from Orwell’s own perspective, is a philosophical nonfiction narrative which questions a very weak justification for murder.
In A Hanging, Orwell writes about an experience in Burma in which he witnessed the hanging of an Indian political prisoner. We are not told if the prisoner is innocent or guilty. We do not even know the crime. However, Orwell runs a strong sense of injustice through this essay: the prisoner should not be hanged.
Orwell’s attention to his surroundings means that he writes with such specific detail about the scene. We are alongside Orwell and the prison guards as they walk to the shed for the hanging. He starts his essay by describing Burma, the “sodden morning of the rains” when the hanging occurs. His narrative opens with him walking with a group of prison guards who are accompanying a prisoner on his way to a hanging.
We see the events through Orwell’s eyes, through his dextrous use of first-person perspective and evocative language. We are deftly transported into a desolate prison landscape in which a human life is unjustifiably cut. It is a location where the guards’ selfish indifference is normalised, where they forget the murder they are about to commit, in of having a drink. When another prisoner struggled against his captivity, one guard reports imploring him to “think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us!”
Orwell walks behind the prisoner and the guards to the location of the hanging. He is jolted when the prisoner sidesteps a puddle. Orwell suddenly realises the man’s humanity. Even though he is a prisoner, even though he is marching to his death, he is human enough to avoid the discomfort of walking through the puddle. “It is curious,” he writes, “but until that moment I never realised what it meant to destroy a healthy, conscious man.”
Here is the crux of Orwell’s story. This man does not deserve to die, to be treated so unjustly. He is a human being.
That we don’t know the details of why the man is being hanged speaks for the injustice of the situation. The reader concentrates on the act of corporal punishment, on the murder taking place before their I suspect that not even the guards know the reason they are hanging this man. But they do not care.
Orwell’s A Hanging is a straightforward yet evocative and powerful essay examining a case of corporal punishment in Burma. I read A Hanging in the collection Shooting an Elephant, published by Penguin Classics. You can also find it on The Literature Network.