My Impressions from George Orwell’s Essay A Hanging

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Choose a non-fiction text which you consider inspiring or provocative.

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George Orwell’s essay on ‘A Hanging’ is a piece of non-fiction where he gives a very powerful and moving account of an execution of a criminal in Burma, where he served in The British Military Police. He focused on this single event which illustrated ‘the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short, which is in full tide’. This was a very provocative piece of writing, where he created an effective argument against capital punishment , and unintentionally became connected, when a stray dog ran into the yard.

Throughout this essay, Orwell skilfully manipulated the mood in order to engage our emotions. He communicated and developed a clear line of thought. In order to help us understand his thoughts about capital punishment, Orwell selected his detail very carefully in the opening lines of the essay. In creating an effective argument, he managed to connect us to the horror he was observing, yet he never explicitly stated his opposition in an identifiable way. The events of the narrative and his chosen detail expressed his point of view. We are never told what the crime was that the prisoner was accused of, so that we are non-judgmental about the penalty. .Orwell’s detailed observation of the prisoner and the events leading up to his death illuminated the sheer banality of death and heightened his strong anti- Capital Punishment stance.

The writer’s language, imagery, use of symbolism, tone and word choice evoked the reader’s sympathy for the prisoner’s fate. Initially , the essay introduces to the reader the bleak Burmese setting where the ‘condemned’ criminals are being held captive by the merciless guards. Orwell sculpts a dismal atmosphere through the setting and word choice. “A sodden morning of rain”, “sickly light, like yellow tinfoil” conveying to the reader the decay and misery all around. He described the condemned cells “small animal cages” suggesting how inhumanely they were treated-not as humans but as animals. He was outraged by the conditions he witnessed. This was also a social commentary of the social inequalities present in a country which was ruled by a foreign power, in this case the UK. The description of the prisoners is quite harrowing as he sees them squatting like animals in these tiny cages, ‘puny’ malnourished and even portrays a comic image of the prisoner “sprouting a moustache”; contrasting this with the tall Indian warders who were healthy and well fed.

George Orwell provokes further emotive reactions as it becomes apparent just how harsh the prison wardens are; cold- hearted. ”The man ought to have been dead by this time….Can’t get their breakfast till the job’s over”. This is spoken by the superintendent who is a doctor and even more shocking as he refers to killing the man as a ‘job’ and as his profession suggests he should be saving lives not killing people. Ironic devices are used to delay the hanging which engenders even more compassion from the reader. A stray dog wanders into the yard, interrupting the sombre procession and heads straight for the prisoner and tried to lick his face. It is as if the dog knew who to befriend, the prisoner and not the guards. Dogs do have an ability to perceive the difference between kind and unfriendly humans. This undoubtedly increased the tension as they obviously wanted to get it over and done with to get on with their day. Punctuality was a very British anomaly. Another irony occurs when the prisoner subconsciously “steps aside to avoid a puddle” and it is at this point that the essayist realises the terrible wrongness of taking a life. Why would someone wish to avoid getting wet when they know that they are about to die? The answer is quite simple; this man is capable of responding to a basic human instinct. As Orwell says he is still “growing” and “healthy”; there is no need to murder him. Orwell ‘s reflections here, conveys his opinion towards capital punishment. At this point he is successfully persuading us to take his view on such a thought provoking topic.

As they reach the gallows , Orwell gives us a description of the hangman , “a grey haired convict”. The burden of responsibility at this point is passed onto the prisoner to take the life of the condemned man. What is heart breaking is when the man shouts, “Ram” “Ram” Ram” calling to his god, and further delaying the hanging which is causing extreme discomfort all round. The same thoughts were in all their minds, “kill him quickly” and at this point even Orwell wishes it to be over. In conveying the man’s death Orwell says, “A sudden snap”. The master of simplicity as he reflects on this horrendous act. “He’s all right said the superintendent”! His callous and uncaring attitude felt by Orwell and the reader.

The use of contrast is very effective as he moves from the dull, uncomfortable event to one of a “homely and jolly scene” – “the dead man only a hundred yards away”. It was quite absurd, indicating the relief felt by all now that the job was done. What does it tell you about their feelings towards capital punishment?

“My dear fellow…. Think of all the pain and trouble you are causing”. This was a callous statement followed by laughter. The essay ends with maximum impact.

“We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably”. We are left to contemplate was has gone before.

This was a very powerful essay written by George Orwell, very provocative as the reader was drawn into the horror of the event from the beginning with Orwell’s carefully chosen use of descriptive language and narration. This was the White man, representative of the Empire , just doing his job in a cold dispassionate way. The observer, Orwell as a member of The British Police was horrified at what he witnessed. This was a man right to the last second and …. His life mattered. As the superintendent said, this was his job and he didn’t question it.

“This is Empire and how we do things”.

The purpose of this essay was intended to express what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man, which he does very succinctly and cannot fail in leaving a lasting impression with the reader. Orwell’s focused on a single event, which illustrated the “unspeakable wrongness of c cutting a life short, which is in full tide”.

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