‘A Hanging’ is a short essay by George Orwell. However, to this simple statement we should probably add two caveats. One is the difficulty of categorisation, when Orwell himself described this ‘essay’ as ‘a story’, suggesting it was fiction rather than an account of a real-life event. The other caveat is about the by-line under which ‘A Hanging’ first appeared. It was one of his earliest published works, and indeed, it didn’t originally appear in print under the name ‘George Orwell’ but under Orwell’s real name, Eric Blair.
Published in Adelphi magazine in 1931, ‘A Hanging’ draws on Orwell’s experiences in imperial Burma in the 1920s, when he worked there as a policeman. Before we offer an analysis of the essay – or ‘story’ – let’s briefly summarise the content of ‘A Hanging’. You can read the essay here.
‘A Hanging’: summary
Orwell describes one morning in Burma when a condemned man was hanged. The superintendent of the jail where the prisoner is being kept is impatient to get the hanging over with because the other prisoners won’t get their breakfast until it has been done. The head jailor is a man named Francis, a member of the Dravidians (a race of south Asian people found in India and nearby countries), whose speech, including his sibilant rendering of ‘is’ as ‘iss’, Orwell documents in Dickensian fashion.
Orwell focuses on small incidents that occur in the run-up to the hanging: while the prisoner is being led from his cell to the gallows, a stray dog appears and approaches the crowd of men, trying to lick the prisoner’s face. The prisoner seems uninterested in the merry dance that follows, whereby the prison warder and a young jailor try to catch the dog or shoo it away.
As Orwell follows the condemned man to the gallows, he reflects that this was the first time he had reflected on what it means to execute someone in their prime of life, when they are healthy and conscious. When the prisoner reaches the gallows, he cries out to his god repeatedly, shouting ‘Ram!’ over and over. A bag is placed over his head and he keeps crying out, until the order is given to drop the carry out the execution.
After the hanging, the men, including Orwell, walk back, and the head jailor shares a story of a hanging where the doctor had to pull the prisoner’s legs to ‘ensure decease’. He then tells another story of a prisoner who resisted being removed from his cell before his execution, and six warders had to pull the man out. The men laugh at this story, and the superintendent offers them all a drink of whisky. They go and drink together, laughing. Orwell’s closing words remind us that the ‘dead man was a hundred yards away.’
‘A Hanging’: analysis
Like another of Orwell’s ‘essays’ which draw upon his experiences in Burma, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (which we discuss here), the extent to which ‘A Hanging’ is actually a work of autobiography or non-fiction has been disputed. Indeed, even Orwell himself said as much, describing it to his friend and housekeeper as ‘only a story’. However, on other occasions he wrote in print that he had indeed seen a man hanged ‘once’: in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he remarked, ‘I watched a man hanged once; it seemed to me worse than a thousand murders.’
It is possible that Orwell sought to distance himself from the ‘I’ who narrates the account in ‘A Hanging’ – perhaps because he came to detest his involvement in imperialism – but it’s also perfectly possible that Orwell was using a fictionalised event to represent the common experience of native men being hanged by the imperial class in south Asia.
Whichever interpretation is the accurate one, and perhaps we will never know, there is reason to believe that Orwell was embellishing the account, at the very least. As James Wood points out in his How Fiction Works – the best introduction to how narrative devices work in fiction, in our opinion, and strongly recommended – the moment where the condemned man ‘stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path’ appears to have been lifted from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In Tolstoy’s novel, Wood reminds us, Pierre witnesses a man being executed and observes that, just before death, the condemned man adjusts the blindfold at the back of his head because it’s a little too tight.
It says a great deal about Orwell’s skill as a writer that he seized upon this telling detail – why would a man who is about to lose his life care if his shoes get wet? But then it’s human nature to do so, and is a subtle and realistic reminder that this is a living, breathing human being who is being sent to the gallows, a person just like you and me, and old habits such as avoiding puddles would die hard. It seems almost comically absurd, but it rings all the more true as a result. Orwell’s long essay on Charles Dickens, which – like his essay on Gulliver’s Travels – shows what a keen eye for literary analysis he had, reveals a surprising affinity between the two writers, in that they both understood how, at moments of extreme mental anguish, small and seemingly inconsequential details become all the more important in revealing human character.
Consider, in this regard, how Dickensian is Orwell’s own description of the tense moment leading up to the execution itself:
The hangman climbed down and stood ready, holding the lever. Minutes seemed to pass. The steady, muffled crying from the prisoner went on and on, ‘Ram! Ram! Ram!’ never faltering for an instant. The superintendent, his head on his chest, was slowly poking the ground with his stick; perhaps he was counting the cries, allowing the prisoner a fixed number – fifty, perhaps, or a hundred.
That repeated ‘perhaps’ is reminiscent of someone trying to keep their mind occupied while they wait for the horrible moment to arrive. It’s also reminiscent, perhaps, of the moment when Fagin, in Oliver Twist, is awaiting the judge’s sentencing which will lead to his hanging:
Not that, all this time, his mind was, for an instant, free from one oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his feet; it was ever present to him, but in a vague and general way, and he could not fix his thoughts upon it. Thus, even while he trembled, and turned burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he fell to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken off, and whether they would mend it, or leave it as it was. Then, he thought of all the horrors of the gallows and the scaffold – and stopped to watch a man sprinkling the floor to cool it – and then went on to think again.
This panicked need to occupy the mind to stop it from fixating on the dreaded theme of death is something Orwell conveys so well, even as bystander rather than condemned man, in ‘A Hanging’.
As with ‘Shooting an Elephant’, where Orwell – or his semi-fictionalised narrator, at least – is beset by a morbid fear of being laughed at by the native Burmese population, laughter plays an important part in ‘A Hanging’, dominating its final ‘scene’. And indeed, even before this, the essay is filled with moments which are described almost comically, from the head jailor’s hissing voice to the jailors’ failed attempts to get rid of the dog that interrupts their procession to the gallows. But the laughter at the end of the essay is harder to analyse: is it nervous laughter? The laughter of the imperial overlords and their indifference to the lives of the natives? It is, perhaps, both: signalling the nervousness of those who feel uneasy occupying such a position, and who must take refuge in the collective, and in alcohol, to make such things palatable.