Capital Punishment in George Orwell, “A Hanging”

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Written by George Orwell, “A Hanging” is a short essay about a prisoner’s execution. The story was set in the 1920’s in Burma, a time when Orwell was working in the Indian Imperial Police. In the story, Orwell narrates about the hanging of a man and how the whole process changed his perspective towards capital punishments. This is evident where he states that “I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.” Orwell uses small details to show the cruelty and inhumanity of the execution, hence illuminating the brutal reality of death and demonstrating a constant condemnation towards the issue of capital punishment. According to Orwell, capital punishment is not only immoral but also brutal. He begins his story by illustrating the barbaric conditions of condemned man, which shows sympathy for his suffering and highlights the horror of capital punishment. Orwell creates an atmosphere of gloom by describing that day’s weather as “a sodden morning of the rains” with “a sickly light, like yellow tinfoil.” Through this imagery, Orwell creates an oppressive and somber mood that indirectly symbolizes the deplorable conditions of the prisoner. He does so by describing how the jail was clouded in a deppressive environment. Orwell tries to gain the sympathy of the readers by showing us the cruelty of the prisoners endure. According to him, the prisoners were treated as less human. He illustrates the cells of the condemned  as “small animal cages.” He says that “Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water.” By describing the cruel conditions the prisoners are under, Orwell shows us the cruelty of the execution and his apparent disapproval of capital punishment.

Orwell also humanizes the prisoner through showing us the ruthlessness of capital punishment, pointing out the “the unspeakable wrongness” of taking the life from a human being. His description of the prisoner is of an individual with “a puny wisp, shaven head and vague liquid eyes that yielded his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly noticed what was happening” and even took the time to step “slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.” He also describes the guards as “tall Indian warders” who “crowded very close about him” and  had their “hands always on him”, “like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.” The guards manned the prisoner tightly, ensuring that he does not escape. At some point, the superintendent thinks that the execution is running late and as a result, he gets very upset about the same. He says irritably, “For God's sake hurry up, Francis, the man ought to have been dead by this time.” Orwell shows his discomfort about the whole process by use of frustration and sarcasm. The superintendent is not happy that the entire situation is taking long and ants the man dead. This shows the reader how disrespectful the authority was towards the prisoners. It depicts that the prisoners are treated in a cruel and inhuman manner. Through characterizing the prisoner as weak, unthreatening and even still having a sense of dignity even though he was about to die, Orwell shows us how humane the prisoner was compared to the guards who mistreated him. He shows us how cruel the guards are, thus humanizing the prisoner. Orwell’s thoughts on capital punishment hit a climax when he views the prisoner as a man, he states, “He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world.” He even goes further to describe the prisoner’s organs by stating that all of his body organs were functioning, “bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming — all toiling away in solemn foolery.” Orwell is trying to show us that the prisoner was just like other human beings. He attempts to make us understand how wrong it is to be “cut a life short when it is in full tide.” This shows Orwell's disapproval of capital punishment.

Besides, Orwell shows us the apathetic attitudes of the people and the actions of a dog, depicting the sadness of capital punishment. While heading towards the gallows a dog came “bounding” towards them “with glee at finding so many humans.” It even went to an extent of licking the prisoner’s face.  Through this dog, Orwell shows us how more humane the dog treated the prisoner than how the humans were. The action of the dog changed Orwell’s perspective towards capital punishment. Orwell put the dog in the story because he was scared to speak up. The dog was his voice. Additionally, Orwell explains how fearful he becomes when the guards lead the prisoner to the gallows. After seeing the prisoner step on the puddle, he realizes that the man is just like any other person and that it was not right to destroy the life of another human being. “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.” Orwell feels so bad when the prisoner is hanging and crying so loud. According to him, it is like he was being forced to watch. The superintendent examines the body after falling off the platform to ensure that the prisoner is dead. After confirming that he is dead, he states that “He is alright.” A statement which sounds sarcastic and painful. This shows how people can be so calloused and indifferent to death. The sad thing about this is that even though the prisoner was hanged, they termed him as being alright, it shows how no one really cared about what happened. Only the dog showed a sense of sadness. After he was proclaimed dead, everyone goes to eat while the “dead man was a hundred yards away.” Eating in that situation is considered a celebration and an acception of the execution. Everyone is having a good time and laughing loudly, forgetting that a human being has just been killed. Orwell shows us how men can forget about death and even be cool about it. Through this, Orwell criticizes the immorality of capital punishment.

In conclusion, by writing “A Hanging,” Orwell wanted to show and express his feelings regarding capital punishment. He depicts the cruelty and inhumanity of the execution. Although he did not fight for the prisoner, he writes the story to demonstrate how he felt, for example, describing the day and writing about the dog. It is evident that Orwell presents capital punishment as a cruel and dehumanizing act. Orwell shows his sympathy for the prisoner and his condition, by metaphors and expressing his outrage all through the essay. He makes his view on capital punishment very clear, questioning its legitimacy.

August 21, 2023

Crime Literature

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