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 a prison during the early twentieth century in Burma. It is crucial to mention that Orwell had been a police officer in the British Imperial Police between 1922 and 1927. 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 prisoner’s 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’’ (Paragraph 1). In addition, the author stated that the prisoners who were condemned to hanging squatted in the cell’s inner bars. All these emphasize on 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. It is vital to note the crucial points within the text that vividly conveys the author’s criticisms e.g. the superintendent’s insensitivity, the action of the convicts just before the execution, as well as the warden’s actions following the execution. This paper provides a literary critique of Orwell’s essay.
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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 ” (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” (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 here shows how well they were being cared for. This is a sharp contrast to the malnourished nature of the prisoners. Through the careful choice of words here, the author successfully manages to arouse the sympathy of the reader towards the prisoner. In describing the handling of the prisoners by the warders, the narrator said, “It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water” (Paragraph 2). 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’’ (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. According to the author, ‘‘it was a high, reiterated cry of ‘Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!’, not urgent and fearful like a prayer or a cry for help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell’’ (Paragraph 12). Being 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 is seen throughout the essay; an indication of the lack of an individual sense of morality on their part. Through this, the author is enforcing the negative mindset that military and prison officers have towards criminals. To them, convicts are destructive objects that are supposed to be dispose of as soon as possible. That is why the officers observing the execution wished that the convict’s hanging be completed fast as stated; ‘‘oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable noise!’’ (Paragraph 13). It also explains why the superintendent even had the courage to poke the dead body of the convict with his stick, saying ironically that the dead man was alright (Paragraph 16).
Following the hanging of the victim, it would be expected that the executing officers be 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 was very ironical; 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.
It is significant to point out how the author cleverly manages to invoke the sympathy of the readers towards the prisoner’s plight by his choice of words, as well as other language techniques like irony, symbolism, imagery etc. The author’s intentional omission of the details of the prisoner’s name or crime cannot go unnoticed. In my opinion, 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, which is illustrated through the hanging of a prisoner in Burma prison in the early 20th century. Through the story, the author shows the insensitivity and lack of consideration that prison officers have towards prisoners, whom they see as objects as opposed to human beings. I hold that 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. I challenge nations that still practice this heinous act to reconsider other punishment options for punishing and correcting criminals.
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