Summary and Analysis of George Orwell’s A Hanging

A Hanging by George Orwell Summary and Analysis

Burma or Myanmar as it is called now, was an important influence on George Orwell’s works and life. The small Asian country has featured over and again in Orwell’s works and particularly in his three novels, Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell was born in India to a father who worked as an overseer of the colonial opium business (Osborne, 2013). George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair. His first novel was Burmese days, published in 1934. While the novel mostly records the insidious effect of Orwell’s job as a policeman in Burma, it also demonstrates his sensitivity to the local culture and lifestyle. A love for the Burmese forests becomes evident in his works like ‘Burmese Days’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’.  Lawrence Osborne notes in her 2015 article for NewYork Times that Orwell was posted at Irrawaddy Delta in 1924 where he did crime scene forensics and surveillance.

The job helped him earn valuable insights into the working pattern of the Police States.  However, the monotonous life in those jungles may have shaped Orwell in other ways too and might be darker because Burma was among the most violent parts of British ruled Asia. Dacoits and armed gangs infested its waterways and wreaked havoc on the local people. Burma was an important part of Orwell’s life and an even important influence on his literary career which took perfect shape in his last two novels Animal Farm and 1984.  ‘A Hanging’ is one of his essays that looks at life inside those Burmese jungles at an angle that is both macabre and candid. While his candid portrayal of the situation engages, it also evokes some terror and fury against the British rule.

Among the other things, the lifelike portrayal of an entire hanging episode is the central feature of Orwell’s work. He treats every small action and movement with precision and focus which makes the readers feel like inside the prison campus and witnessing the event. Starting with the depiction of the local weather, a rainy morning in Burma, Orwell takes us through the events at a slow pace. He depicts the entire episode with clarity. His portrayal of the settings especially add charm to his work. Those condemned cells inside which the brown people waited for death to arrive; inside those bare cells of ten by ten with a plank bed and a pot of water, brown men waited for their final moment holding those iron bars. Damp and poorly lit yard looked and smelled like death. Orwell gives us a small description of the settings before moving on to the target. It was a hindu with a  bald head who did not show any particular inclination or intention to live on the day he was being taken to be hanged.

This makes the writer feel more deeply for the poor victim who could either be a revolutionary or a criminal. However, the patience with which he chanted Ram, Ram made him appear one of the revolutionaries who accepted death with pride while fighting against British Raj. However, he could also be an ordinary Hindu native to have revolted or committed some other crime. What made everything look very comic was that while the man was in no way trying to resist he was still being guarded by six tall guards which also showed he must be a prisoner of stature. These guards held close to him as if he could give them a slip like a fish does if not held carefully. Orwell does not point out anything about the prisoner’s background. None of his relatives is there to visit him and except his appearance that shows he is a Hindu, there is no background on his crime and why the punishment is so severe. He was handcuffed but resisted in no manner and the calm attitude made the guards uneasy. Orwell uses rich imagery and similes to describe the event and give the readers a clear image of the hanging.

The bugle call at eight o Clock seemed to have woken the superintendent up who asked the head jailer Francis why things were not ready yet. It had to be completed by now. The head jailer was a fat Dravidian who rushed at the superintendent’s call. The team marched but its march was suddenly halted by the arrival of a dog who pranced around them and then reached for the prisoner at the centre trying to lick his face. The dog was difficult to control and the superintendent was angry. With a lot of difficulty the dog could be brought under control and the team again moved on. It was forty yards to the gallows, notes Orwell who was keenly watching the prisoner who showed no concern or curiosity like everything was a formality before the hanging.  He was walking like a King followed by his men and with the same dignity and pride. He was gripped by guards but stepped slightly aside to avoid  a puddle which suddenly made Orwell realise a thing. They were going to destroy a life and he had never known what it was like. Suddenly, the wrongness of the entire act dawned upon him. How bad it was to cut a life short when it was in full tide. 

This man was not dying and this all was being done in the name of law or as Orwell calls it ‘Solemn foolery’. Orwell’s tone grows quite guilty and emotional at this point when he observes what was going to happen in the last moment and till finally death took his soul away.  Orwell thinks of the last few moments the man was going to spend in human company. His nails would still be growing and his mind still thinking till finally… “with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less”. The gallows were in a small yard separated from the main prison. Orwell notes the fine details of the area overgrown with weeds. The proceedings began and the hangman fixed the rope around the prisoner’s neck. In his last moments, the prisoner started chanting the name of his Lord Rama. There was no fear in his voice but it was rhythmic like the tolling of a bell. Even after the hangman pulled the cloth over his face, his voice continued. However, the noise had started ringing in the minds of the people surrounding him and some of them even started shaking. The superintendent allowed the prisoner some more time to chant his Lord’s name.  The voice was seriously terrifying the audience and Indians had grown black like coffee. It was as if the dying man would curse them and fear had turned their faces black. Everyone had the same thought that just finish it and stop that abominable noise. Suddenly the superintendent ordered the hangman and it happened. The superintendent checked the dangling body for signs of life and then as he backed out of the gallows, the look on his face had changed. As they moved back to the prison yard, the scene was jollier there. Breakfast was being served and after the hanging episode was over, they felt like breaking into a song.  A Eurasian boy walking by the author’s side told him that the poor guy had pissed on the floor of his cell out of fright to learn that his appeal had been dismissed. While nobody believed him, they still gave a hearty laugh. The head jailor was talking to the superintendent about the hangings that had occurred previously and that this one had taken place quite peacefully.  The superintendent and the jailor kept talking of how things get clumsy sometimes when the prisoners do not cooperate and try to delay the process. Orwell suddenly grew conscious that  he was laughing like everyone else. The gloomy scene of death had not quite left him. The superintendent decided to serve everyone whisky he had brought with himself. The party proceeded joking and laughing and natives and Europeans all had a drink together a hundred yards from where the prisoner lay dead.

Orwell’s work gives us  a naked portrayal of the British Raj. A death has occurred and no-one is affected. Everything goes on mechanically and people have fun like a burden is shifted off their heads. This pattern also led to a  kind of distaste that  Orwell has clearly expressed in many of his works. Everything appears comic and insensitive under the British rule.  The author has expressed his moral dilemma in several of his works including Shooting an Elephant. He is himself one of the despised colonialists in Burma but Orwell had realised the evil in imperialism and felt guilty about how the oppressors were treating the local Burmese people. This guilt is clearly expressed in A Hanging and grows highlighted at various points. At a point Orwell realises that his duty was against his values when he sees that they are going to cut off a life in full tide. Again he realises that he is laughing like the rest of the pack and it seems foolish to him. He expresses his sarcasm strongly using the characters of the Eurasian Boy and Jailor Francis. The tone of the essay is sarcastic and while the author himself gets to be a part of these proceedings, he cannot help feeling guilty and hollow. He cannot help feeling for the local Burmese and even for himself whom the imperialists had forced to be the part of brutal system. He could never agree with its actions and felt that this kind of moral suffering was no good for the white man himself.  Orwell saw British Raj as tyrannical and the distaste kept growing in him and later found fuller expression in 1984.

Literary devices used in A Hanging:

Examples of Similes:

A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil,

gone grey like bad coffee


Eight o’clock struck and a bugle call, desolately thin in the wet air, floated from the distant barracks. 

It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water

Irony in  A Hanging:

While it is the fate of the Burman prisoners that is most ironic in the essay there are other ironies too. The author gets to see and feel the awkwardness associated with death at the hanging. Ironically, he cannot stop it or even say what is in his heart. He has got to follow the rules and cannot interfere with the proceedings. Everyone feels both bad and good about the hanging. The bad feeling lasts till the hanging is over. After that they celebrate it with a drink. The local people are being tried and hanged by foreign rulers who do not have any right to do it. Their fates are ironic. In case of Orwell, he is facing a moral dilemma. A sick feeing envelopes everyone when the poor creature chants Ram, Ram and the Superintendent allows him some more time to remember his God before finally hanging him. The silence with which the man accepts his fate and does not make any fuss is a sign that resistance against the British either fails or is crushed. Orwell does not know where will this irony end because it can be over only with the overthrow of the British rule. He has to laugh when others laugh and drink when they do. He ironically recognises that he has grown so used to this way of life that might be he has grown just as inhuman as others.


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