A Hanging by George Orwell Summary and Analysis
Burma, now known as Myanmar, was an important influence on George Orwell’s works and life. The South East 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 Burmese days, was published in 1934. While the novel mostly records the insidious effect of Orwell’s job as a policeman in Burma on his life, it also demonstrates his sensitivity to the local culture and lifestyle. A love for the Burmese forests is 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 inside the jungles influenced Orwell in other ways too. Burma was among the most violent parts of the British ruled Asia. Dacoits and armed gangs infested its waterways and looted the local people. Burma was an important episode in 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 looking at life inside those Burmese jungles at an angle which is both candid and blunt. While his candid portrayal of the situation engages, it also evokes fury against the British rule. Orwell treats the entire scene with brutal honesty and directness. From the calm demeanour of the prisoner to be hanged to every small sound and movement inside the prison campus, Orwell captures each scene like a skilled photographer bringing to light the inhuman treatment of prisoners and lack of concern among the British officials for the lives of the convicts.
His detailed and clear 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 with their own eyes. 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 local people waited for death to arrive were ten by ten in size with a plank bed and a pot of water. Convicted men waited for their final moment holding those iron bars. The prison had a poorly lit and damp courtyard. Orwell gives us a small description of the settings before moving on to the convict. It was a hindu with a bald head who did not show any particular resistance while he was being taken to be hanged.
The face of the convict was serious and calm. The writer felt deeply for the convict who was either 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 the British. He could also be an ordinary Hindu native to have revolted or committed some other crime. What made everything look so comic was that while the man was in no way trying to resist, six tall guards were walking alongside him. This also shows he must be a prisoner of some stature. The guards held close to him as if he would slip like a fish from their hands. Orwell does not offer any information on the prisoner’s background. None of his relatives were visiting him and except his appearance which showed he was a Hindu, there is no mention of his offence. He was handcuffed but resisted in no manner and his calm attitude made the guards uneasy. Orwell uses rich imagery and similes to describe the event and give the readers a clear picture 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. The hanging 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 a dog which 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. They brought the dog under control with great difficulty and then moved on. The dog in the essay symbolises approaching death and the nasty stink inside the prison is hell itself. It was forty yards to the gallows, notes Orwell who was keenly watching the prisoner who showed no concern or curiosity. He walked instead like a King followed by his men and with dignity and pride. He was gripped by guards from both sides. While walking, he stepped aside to avoid a puddle caused by the previous night’s rain. This suddenly made Orwell realise something. They were going to destroy a life which was seriously irresponsible. It was bad to cut a life short when it was in full tide. This action also showed that the prisoner was in no mood to cause any disturbance while on his last journey.
This man was not dying. He was being murdered in the name of law or as Orwell calls it ‘Solemn foolery’. Orwell’s tone grows guilty, emotional and sarcastic at this point when he observes what was going to happen in the last moment and till finally death took the convict’s 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”. Here the use of anaphora deepens the psychological impact of Orwell’s words. The gallows were in a small yard separated from the main prison. Orwell notes the details of the surrounding area which was 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 chanting 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. His voice was terrifying the audience and Indian guards had grown black as coffee. It was as if the dying man would curse them and the fear had turned their faces black. Everyone had the same thought that let’s 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 learning 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 prisoner did not cooperate and tried 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 is standing among the wolves and cannot play the sheep. He knows that any signs of dissatisfaction on his face would be visible and become a trouble for him. However, deeper inside his fury is surging and while he joins the British folks, he cannot help picturing them as drinking the dead convict’s blood.
Orwell’s work gives us a naked portrayal of the British Raj. A death has occurred and no one is affected. People on the scene later have fun like a burden is off their shoulders. This pattern gave birth to a kind of distaste that Orwell has clearly expressed in many of his works. Everything comic and insensitive happened 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 hated colonialists in Burma. Orwell had realised the evil in imperialism and felt guilty about how the oppressors were treating the local people. This guilt is clearly expressed in ‘A Hanging’ and grows highlighted at various points. Orwell realises that his duty was against his personal values at the point he sees his colleagues are going to brutally cut off a life in full tide. Again he realises that he is laughing like the rest of the pack. The characters of the Eurasian Boy and Jailor Francis also highlight the irony of the situation. 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 low. He feels for the Burmese people and even for himself whom the imperialists had forced to be the part of a brutal and sinful system. Orwell could never agree with its actions and felt that this kind of moral decline was not good for the white man himself. Orwell saw British Raj as tyrannical and the distaste kept growing in him and later found stronger 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
Symbols in A Hanging:
Dog: The dog symbolizes approaching death and the condition of prisoners under British rule.
The puddle: The small puddle symbolizes calm before storm, life before death and mental peace that comes from detachment.
Prison and the gallows : The prison symbolizes the oppression of Burmese population at the hands of the British and their denial of freedom to the locals; entire Burma could be seen as a large prison created by British rule where people were trapped like a fish in fishing net. The gallows symbolize the grip of the British on the nation and the punishing life under British rule.
Irony in A Hanging:
The condition of the Burman prisoners portrayed in the essay is tragic and the role of British officials is comic. 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 sick 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. Orwell’s writing also shows that none of the prisoners has received a fair trial. Their fates are ironic because all form of resistance fails. They are hanged and the party ends with a drink to wipe out the distaste resulting from witnessing a death.
In case of Orwell, he is facing a moral dilemma. A sick feeling strikes everyone when the poor creature chants Ram, Ram, Ram and the Superintendent allows him more time before they hang him. The silence with which the man accepts his fate and does not make any fuss is a sign that resistance against the British rule was brutally crushed. The irony is that while the man would not resist, he shows his disapproval of the British rule by calmly accepting the death sentence imposed upon him. 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 and drink with the British folks. He ironically recognises he has grown used to this way of life. However, death of the poor convict also wakes him to the reality of the British Raj and how ironic or rather tragic it is to be a part of such a cruel and reckless herd that destroys innocent lives only to express its own superiority and might. Moreover, the poor man’s death makes him ask of himself if his death was more ironic or it is the British Raaj. Orwell’s work raises several questions which neither those imperialists and nor the people they ruled would have been able to answer conveniently.
However, Orwell’s account of a hanging in Burma is deeply unsettling and not because it evokes sympathy for the simple and poor prisoner but because it helps us peer deeper and understand the level of atrocity and the kind of horror, the imperialists could perpetrate without feeling its weight on their hearts and consciences. A hanging takes the form of a procession or a last ritual and then ends in a party. No one is even the slightest concerned for the life that was cut short. None except George Orwell even seems to be thinking since the weight of their acts could fall on their hearts. As if a century later, the imperialists would rise from their graves to bear the responsibility of the horrors they had perpetrated and apologize for every rule of humanity they broke or every person, society and nation they cheated; Orwell makes us realize that these imperialists were cheating less developed nations of their most precious assets and that they were worse than the dacoits that lived inside the Burmese Jungles. Seen from the eyes of George Orwell, those sins look even unpardonable.