Humanity in “A Hanging” by George Orwell
In the essay “A Hanging” by George Orwell, there are distinct
references to a deeper humanity of the situation, as well as a genuine
awareness of humanity’s ambivalence. There are two powerful examples in
the essay that illuminates this contradiction. First, Orwell employs
references to animal captivity, and provides a startling contrast to the
brutal living conditions of the prisoners with an event of animalistic
affection. Also, Orwell explores the duplicity of the human conscience,
again, inspired by a seemingly meaningless event: the prisoner avoiding the
puddle on his way to being hanged. Such minor, yet crucial details are
what make Orwell such an excellent writer-he sees the world as it is: full
of wonder and ugliness.
Orwell describes the condemned prisoners as “brown silent men
squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets wrapped around them.” He
makes them seem very much like caged animals in his description-the
prisoners are, after all, waiting for death in “small animal cages.” The
prisoner to be put to death is removed from his cell by six Indian warders.
On his first appearance Orwell remarks that he is “a puny wisp of a man,
with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes,” and that the prisoner wore an
absurd moustache. Orwell’s initial description of the Hindu seems hardly
human, ridiculous, not worth a care. The Hindu is handled “in a careful
caressing grip,” Orwell observes, although this care does not exceed the
caution used in handling a struggling fish.
Ironically, a “dreadful thing” occurs, a dog enters the scene innocent
of what is about to happen, and begins to play with the prisoner causing
dismay among everyone present. This simple display of affection by the
dog, forces them to see the terrible reality of what their doing: ending a
man’s life. The animalistic treatment of the man begins to dissolve with
the appearance of a real, playful animal, compelling them to see him as a
conscious, thinking person.
Similarly, a small rational act of the prisoner disturbs Orwell’s
conscience. Orwell notices the prisoner stepping “slightly aside to avoid a
puddle on the path”, simultaneously he sees the mystery, the unspeakable
wrongness of what they are about to do: end the mans life “when it is in
full tide.” Orwell is mortified by the realization that in a few minutes
time “with a sudden snap one of us would be gone-one mind less, one world
” Orwell begins to feel a kinship of humanity with the condemned man.
It is here that we see Orwell’s ambivalence: he indicts himself and his
companions for acting against their true feelings. Perhaps not all present
at the hanging share Orwell’s compassion.
The superintendent, at least, seems troubled by his conscience.
Orwell characterizes him as reticent towards what is about to take place.
Twice Orwell describes him prodding the ground with his stick with his head
Instead of cancelling the execution, the hanging is pressed on
with even more haste, for the sake of their combined consciences-the
prisoner’s cries, even muffled by the cloth bag are unbearable to the
audience in the small yard. Once the execution is over (as well as the
cries to God), the superintendent pokes the body with his stick, remarking:
“‘He’s all right.'” But there is no way the dead man is “all right”-he’s
simply dead. It is the superintendent and the others who are now all
right: their guilt dies as quickly as the prisoner’s cries for help.
The following breakfast “seemed quite a homely, jolly scene after the
hanging,” Orwell writes. “An enormous relief had come upon us now that the
job was done.
One felt an impulse to sing, to break into a run, to
snigger. All at once everyone began chattering gaily.” They all seem to
be relieved that this horrible deed is out of the way and they can go on
with the normalities of prison life. These people seem only concerned with
their own feelings, and not of the death of a man. They are able to eat
and drink with the dead man only a hundred yards away; being distanced from
their act consoles them. The hundred yards that separates them may as well
be a million-the act is largely forgotten.
George Orwell’s experiences in Burma reveal the hideous contradiction
in all human beings; Orwell shows that he has a great understanding of the
ambivalence of humanity, taken from his own life experience. He never once
mentions the condemned mans guilt: Orwell is concerned with .