Eric Arthur Blair is the real name of George Orwell, an English author who was born in India in 1903 (Taylor, 2010). Though his family was poor, Orwell was able to attend the best boarding schools in England via a scholarship. However, he was infuriated by the domineering manner in which those schools controlled the lives of their students. After graduation from Eton College, he joined the British Imperial Police (Burma) in 1922. In the service, they were obliged to enforce the stringent laws of the British regime; something that made him despise the British political regime, and consequently quit his job in 1927. Afterwards, he returned to Europe and committed himself to writing (Widmann, 2012). Living in poverty during his earlier years had a great influence on his writings as seen in Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell joined the Spanish Civil War’s Republican forces in 1936, where he fought against communism. He was injured in the war and had to escape from Spain to save his life. His personal experiences in the Spanish Civil War are well documented in his book, Homage to Catalonia (Widmann, 2012). It is important to mention that Orwell’s numerous experiences with authoritarian political regimes greatly impacted his prose. Some of his famous books that reflect his resistance to dictatorship include Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm (Widmann, 2012). This paper presents a literary criticism of Orwell’s essay, A Hanging. Just like his other writings were influenced by his personal experiences, this essay provides Orwell’s account of the social inequities that occurred under the British rule, possibly while he worked as an imperial policeman in Burma.
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A Hanging by George Orwell
George Orwell’s essay, A Hanging is a concise and compelling story giving an account of the author’s condemnation of capital punishment. The essay was initially published in 1931 in The Adelphi, the British literary magazine. The story is set in the early twentieth century in a prison in Burma (Orwell, 2012). This book provides the author’s personal account of the social inequities that were taking place under the British rule. It is worthwhile to note the deplorable and inhuman conditions under which the prisoners lived. This is evidenced by the opening sentence of the essay which stated, ‘‘A sickly light’’, denoting the poor living standards and health of the prisoners. In describing the prisoners’ cells, the author said, “each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water” (Orwell, 2012, paragraph 1). In addition, the author stated that the prisoners who were condemned to hanging squatted in the cell inner bars. All these emphasize the deplorable living conditions of the prisoners. In this essay, Orwell illustrates his disapproval of capital punishment by giving an example of the execution of a Hindu man, of which he was an observer, giving details of the events that occurred before and following the execution.
The main purpose of the author is to make the reader understand the mindset that the superintendent and the prison guards had towards prisoners i.e. they treated the prisoners more like animals than humans. This is evidenced throughout the essay, for instance, in the description of the cells, the author stated, “We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages” (Orwell, 2012, paragraph 1) The inhumanity towards the inmates is witnessed in the way the Hindu man is handled by the guards. The prisoner is portrayed as “a puny wisp of a man” (Orwell, 2012, paragraph 2); an indication of his frail and malnourished state. Despite this, the prisoner was surrounded and escorted by six tall prison warders on his way to the gallows. The tallness of the warders shows how well they were being cared for. This is a sharp contrast to the malnourished nature of the prisoners. To the superintendent and the prison guards, the execution of prisoners was just like any other routine job that they ought to complete so that they could move to the next responsibilities. They never cared about the feelings of the prisoners and they treated them like objects. That is why when the execution was delayed, the superintendent told the head jailor angrily, “For God’s sake hurry up, Francis, he said irritably. The man ought to have been dead by this time” (Orwell, 2012, paragraph 3). He did not see the prisoner as a human being whose life is about to be cut short, and probably, a person with a family that may suffer following his execution.
The author portrays the criminal as a conscious and rational person who understands the gravity of his mistakes, and is willing to reform if given the opportunity. This is evidenced when the criminal sidesteps the puddle of water on his way to the gallows where he was to be executed. This shows the inmate’s consciousness towards his surroundings, and his capability to engage in acts that are morally right without being compelled or supervised. Through this portrayal, Orwell highlights the severity of capital punishment i.e. it cuts short the lives of convicts without giving them a second chance, despite some showing genuine remorse and willingness to reform. It is also worthwhile to mention that such severity has a negative effect on the convicts i.e. it makes them highly defiant and fearless. This is seen in the unwavering, reluctant and repetitive manner in which the convict calls on his god prior to his conviction (Orwell, 2012, paragraph 12). Since those were the last moments of his life, the convict was expected to be afraid and sad, but instead, he showed bravery against all odds.
The insensitivity and the lack of compassion of the executors and prison officers are seen throughout the essay; an indication of the lack of an individual sense of morality on their part. To them, convicts are destructive objects that are supposed to be disposed of as soon as possible. This is evidenced by the superintendent when he pokes the dead body of the convict with his stick after being hanged; saying ironically that the dead man was alright (Orwell, 2012, paragraph 16).
Following the hanging of the victim, it would be expected that the executors were in a somber and sorrowful mood because of ending the life of a fellow human being. However, the laughter and the light-hearted mood of the officers were very ironical. It was an indication of their heartlessness and lack of compassion. Throughout the text, Orwell’s stance on capital punishment and its consequences is very vivid. According to the author, capital punishment is a very cruel way of punishing convicts, which does not provide any second chances for reformation. In addition, the punishment adversely affects both the executors and the executed. It turns the executing officers into heartless and immoral monsters, while convicts become fearless and rebellious. The author’s intentional omission of the details of the prisoner’s name or crime cannot go unnoticed. Orwell does not wish for the readers to pass judgment regarding whether or not the convict deserved the death penalty. Therefore, by choosing to focus exclusively on the process prior to the execution, Orwell achieves his purpose of exposing to the reader the cruel truth of capital punishment.
To conclude, this paper is about Orwell’s criticisms regarding capital punishment, in which he brings to light the insensitivity and lack of consideration that prison officers have towards prisoners, whom they see as objects as opposed to human beings. Every person has a right to life and no mistake on earth warrants the killing of human beings. It is totally against the Bible teachings and morality. Nations that still practice this heinous act should reconsider other punishment options for punishing and correcting criminals.
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