Decay of Moral Judgement in “A Hanging” by George Orwell

The disregard for all ethical expectations of humanity can be a result of the pressure to execute one’s job regardless of the consequences for those in one’s vicinity. This was often the case in Europe during the 1900s when the death sentence was still a frequent form of punishment. This decay of moral judgement and desensitization to the killing of other human beings is epitomized in George Orwell’s essay, “A Hanging”, which revolves around his time spent enforcing capital punishment in Burma under British rule. Orwell contends that the implementation of capital punishment causes those working for the justice system to stray from humanity and moral values by dehumanizing fellow citizens. Due to his personal experience with this issue, Orwell conveys his opinion on these deleterious effects of capital punishment through his effective use of contrast, irony and symbolism.

Orwell illustrates how capital punishment can cause those executing it to deviate from ethical and moral behaviour through his use of contrast; especially between the prisoners and the guards’ physical appearance and living standards. Firstly, Orwell’s comparison of the prisoners’ cells to “small animal cages”, which contained nothing but “a plank for a bed and a pot of drinking water”, illustrates the dehumanization of the convicts and the deplorable living conditions they endured. Moreover, the “puny wisp of a man” who was to be killed juxtaposed to the “fat Dravidian in a white drill suit” exemplifies the superiority of the guards over the prisoners and the drastic disparity in living conditions. The discernible differences between the imperious guards and the docile prisoners are ironic since some of the guards are of the same ethnicity as those they are executing. Furthermore, the contrast between Orwell’s belief about the “wrongness, of cutting a life short” and wanting to “kill him quickly [and] get it over” with, conveys how the guards’ occupation required them to suppress their moral values. Additionally, the solemn atmosphere and guilty tone before the prisoner’s death where the guards had “gone grey like bad coffee” contrasted with the breakfast, where “everyone [was] chattering gaily”, clearly portrays how the execution of capital punishment desensitizes those working under the government to the killing of fellow citizens. Orwell’s extensive use of contrast presents his criticism on capital punishment and the deleterious effects it has on those working for it.

Additionally, the use of irony throughout the essay enables Orwell to demonstrate how those working for capital punishment suppress their moral values and sense of compassion. First, the irony of the prisoner stepping “aside to avoid a puddle”, although he was approaching his death, reminds the narrator that he was “alive, just as [everyone else was] alive”. Orwell’s incorporation of this action is vital as it triggered the narrator’s compassionate and moral side, that were inconspicuous prior to this moment. Subsequently, it demonstrates how the guards were usually quite oblivious to what they were doing because it had developed into an insipid routine. Furthermore, after the execution, the superintendent poked the body and declared him “all right” despite the fact that he was dead and thus the opposite of all right. This ironic statement demonstrates how the lives of the prisoners became obsolete to those enforcing capital punishment, because their job numbed them to the killing of other humans. Moreover, the guards all laughed at a recollection of a time before a prisoner’s execution where they had told him to “think of all the pain and trouble [he was] causing [them]”, which is utterly ironic since they were escorting him to his death. This callous statement and the apathetic response border on cynicism, furthering the notion that those executing the death sentence become oblivious to the significance and severity of their jobs. Additionally, the fact that the dog “whine[d]” during the prisoner’s repeated cries and acted more compassionately and humane than the humans, who acted indifferent and simply wanted to complete their assignment, is ironic and blatantly conveys Orwell’s criticism on the effect capital punishment has on those implementing it. Orwell’s pervasive use of irony is essential in expressing his opposition to capital punishment, since it obliterates humaneness from those enforcing it.

Furthermore, Orwell’s integration of symbolism exposes how external influences affect one’s actions and beliefs, and in this case desensitize one to the killing of others. One of the main symbols in this essay is the stray dog that appears on the march to the gallows. The dog is a mix breed of a Pariah, which is a free Burmese dog, and an Argail, which is a British colonial dog, and thus represents the guards, many of whom are originally Indian but have been greatly influenced by the British. Moreover, the dog symbolizes the guards’ consciousness and sympathy, as it “whine[d]” harmoniously with the prisoner’s cries, and “[looked] timorously out at [the guards]” after they killed another human. However, since the dog also symbolizes innocence and purity, but ended up “[slipping] after [the guards]” when the killing was over, it demonstrates how those implementing capital punishment have gradually been desensitized to the killings and are compelled to follow orders. Moreover, the dog was filled “with glee” and “jump[ed] up [trying] to lick [the prisoner’s] face” conveying how all humans are equal and should be treated as such. Additionally, the “sickly light, like yellow tinfoil” that shined into the jail yard symbolizes how inhumane and ‘sick’ the happenings in the prison were. Orwell reiterates how beneath the appearance both the prisoners and guards are human and equal through his use of symbolism of the guard’s “black hand” and the prisoners’ “brown backs”. Orwell’s symbolism is vital in understanding how capital punishment can have detrimental effects on society, especially for those enforcing it.

Orwell clearly portrays the corrupting effects of capital punishment on the minds of those executing it as well as those it physically victimizes. Consequently, he indicates how this brutal and inhumane prosecution system can numb people to killings of fellow citizens. Similar to Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”, those working for the imperialists feel pressured to perform their job the way they are expected, despite their moral judgement or what the consequences of their actions are. Furthermore, a justice system that gives some people immense power over other people not only harms the minds and perceptions of those involved, but also segregates a society. As a liberal socialist, Orwell believes in the equality of all citizens, and hence denounces capital punishment for the damaging psychological effects on those involved in the process.

A Hanging Prose Analysis

George Orwell, most reputable for his novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) uses his signature transparent writing style to record a personal anecdote of ‘A Hanging’ conducted in a Burmese prison camp where he worked during the British colonial era. Though not explicitly stated, the narrative demonstrates the process of cyclic desensitization towards acts of injustice due to purposeful self-blinding combined with subconscious effect from embedded societal norms. Orwell shows his recognition of these processes evolve over the course of the narrative through use of characters and metonyms. Despite the recount presenting non-fiction events as they happened from beginning to end structure, Orwell’s piece displays literary techniques used to ‘move’ his readers, thus making it a work of power over knowledge.

From the first paragraph onward, it is immediately noticeable how withdrawn the workers of the penal institution were from the detained prisoners. “We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.” This extract suggests that the captives were identified to the writer merely as animals raised for slaughter (p.1.). Orwell also shows that the prisoners’ poor treatment was indifferent to him through the fact that he displays their bad living circumstances but never comments on them, a point further supported through the introduction of the main protagonist.

Despite the convicted man being destined for death, Orwell only reports his central figure’s physical appearance, “He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes… thick, sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body.” The writer clearly shows his lack of concern towards ‘who’ he was guiding to death by never mentioning insight on the felon’s thoughts or what he was convicted of (p.1.). If Orwell was raised with morals against killing and did not know the prisoner’s crime, then it can be inferred that the author’s disregard towards his prisoner may have been shaped by his own self-numbing mechanisms, along with what the law he enforced communicated as ‘wrong’ and ‘right.’

Running off the Darwinist theory of evolution, the mentality of the imperialist era was that Anglo-Saxons were the sovereign race. Being upper-class Europeans, no-doubt this ideology impacted the writer and his colleagues, namely the Superintendent who stated upon looking at the time, “For God’s sake hurry up, Francis,’ he said irritably. ‘The man ought to have been dead by this time. Aren’t you ready yet?” Orwell makes known the superintendent’s previous profession as an army doctor and combined with his high rank, he was assumedly the most versed in witnessing death. It is not a shock that this character was virtually numb to sensitivity over the matter as displayed in his harsh dialogue (p.1.). Thus, being an example of the extent a human can detach from emotions towards killing. The next symbolic character featured however, is free from the imprint of the westernized caste system and therefore makes an interpretation of the prisoner without bias.

The first metonym comes in the appearance of “a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah” on the way to the gallows and creates a light-hearted contradiction to the dark tone previously set (p.2.). “It came bounding among us with a loud volley of barks, and leapt round us wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together.” Second to the superintendent, the dog shows the way in which societal hierarchy can affect perspective (p.2.). The animal, not being part of a social system, did not understand what was taking place. In its innocence, it saw not a group of men marching alongside an illegitimate, but a group of men marching. The canine confirms that it saw all of the men as equals when it “made a dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to lick his face.” Despite the dog’s interruption of the formal procession, Orwell continues to illustrate the prisoner’s death march as a seamless process unlike that of a murder (p.2.).

The description of the detainee’s systematic walking illustrates that everything was operating in a ‘business as usual’ fashion. “At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel.” It was not until the subject actively avoided walking through a puddle that the author began to view the impending hanging as a heinous act about to take place instead of a job or standard procedure to be dealt with(p.2.).

The prisoner stepping aside to miss the puddle is a curious action to perform while walking to one’s death and serves as a moral climax to Orwell who then realises, “what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive.” Through witnessing that this man, who seemed so invalid, was still able to perform basic actions of reasoning, the author was able to identify the prisoner correspondingly to the dog’s temperament, stating, “He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.” Similarly, to how the puddle affected Orwell personally, the lynching itself clearly impacts other participants (p.2.).

Even though hangings occurred weekly, the author displayed that the prisoner’s “reiterated cry of ‘Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!” to his god, was disturbing to workers (except the superintendent) who shared the opinion of, “get it over, stop that abominable noise!” The moment of the drop acts as the physical climax in the piece and the negative affect this particular hanging had on the prison guards can be seen through the text, “Everyone had changed colour. The Indians had gone grey like bad coffee, and one or two of the bayonets were wavering.” Orwell mentions that after witnessing the atrocities of mankind even the dog “retreated into a corner of the yard, where it stood among the weeds, looking timorously out at us.” Whether the workers began to see the same traits in the prisoner that Orwell saw or they were simply shocked by the man’s unusual cries, all of the characters evidently felt disturbed (p.3.). This point can be further confirmed by the men celebrating amongst each other to reaffirm that what they had done was okay.

The celebration signals an end to the narrative but doubles as the beginning of a new desensitization cycle in preparation for the next week. It is obvious through multiple lines in the text that they all wanted to distract themselves not only by drinking, but also by garrulously laughing for minor reasons, “Several people laughed — at what, nobody seemed certain…. I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing…. We all began laughing again. At that moment, Francis’s anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny.” Through all of this unnecessary laughter and questionable ‘happiness’ shown by the workers, the author is presenting the prison staff numbing guilt and reassuring the actions of peers (p.4.). The writer’s last words, “The dead man was a hundred yards away” display that the underlying issue was physically out of sight and mentally out of mind thus signalling a new ‘cycle’ beginning (p.4.).

In conclusion Orwell’s use of symbols such as characters, the puddle, the hanging itself and the celebration are effective in demonstrating the way in which humans purposefully blind themselves from transgressions of their own and of the people around them in order to accept actions that go against their core beliefs and values. Orwell’s seemingly concise writing style shares a double meaning to convey the writer’s own beliefs as if it were a work of knowledge, but because of this second agenda, ‘A Hanging’ can be identified as a work of power.

Fighting Imperialism: Orwell’s Essays as a Lens for Understanding His Novels

George Orwell continues to be one of the most frequently quoted and best-loved British authors of the 20th century. Even years after his death, he is still celebrated by people all over the world. The political consciousness that pervades his writing ensures that he remains to be a touchstone for most readers. In particular, most readers refer to him as a primary literary protagonist during the Cold War era. This is confirmed by The Socialist Party of Great Britain by arguing that “Orwell was a fine, though somewhat confused, journalist who became famous for the plain style of writing evident in his essays; his successful attempt to make political writing an art; his famous satires on totalitarianism; his search for objectivity and honesty in journalism depicted most graphically in Homage to Catalonia (1938)” (1). Orwell’s writing became a source of great controversies during his lifetime. 1984, his last novel, was the definition of a ‘canonical text’ that focused on conservative anti-communism. His miscellaneous work, The Collected Essays, enabled the readers to understand the context of Orwell’s books.

As World War II came to an end, Orwell was finishing up his novel, 1984. The book became famous, so much so that its key phrases and title are still used to show the dangers of excessive government control. The developed ideas in his book expressed the dangers he witnessed through the fascism of Italy, Spain, and Germany, and the Soviet Union’s communism (The Socialist Party of Great Britain 1). “Nineteen Eighty-four” – are ideas Orwell developed to express the dangers he saw mid-century in the fascism of Germany, Italy and Spain and communism in the Soviet Union (Christie 1).” It is argued that future generations will continue using Orwellian terms to fight authoritarian governments. Furthermore, the generations to come may also use the terms to decry democracies that utilize Big Brother techniques under the pretext of self-preservation. Orwell was critical of individuals who accepted, as well as parroted, the party line regardless of the party values and style of leadership.Nobody ever imagined that Orwell’s essay, which praised the Common Toad, would become famous sixty years after it was written. In the beginning, the article was written to fill a newspaper column. The article had all the characteristics that had been associated with Orwell’s style of writing. Particularly, “it focused on an unglamorous subject matter, the unnoticed details, the baleful glare, and the belief in humanity” (Paxman 1). The piece is not about the Toad, but about spring, which is the most promising time of the year. The essay is one among the many articles written by Orwell that criticized governments and their leaders. After reading this piece, the question that one asks is why would he write an article focusing on controversial political issues?

George Orwell was initially known as Eric Blair, and was the son of a government official who oversaw the opium trade. He was born in India, but was transferred to Burma as an imperial police officer (Biography 1). “The son of a British civil servant, George Orwell spent his first days in India, where his father was stationed. His mother brought him and his older sister, Marjorie, to England about a year after his birth and settled in Henley-on-Thames. His father stayed behind in India and rarely visited (Biography 1).” Initially, he did not show any signs of liberal ideas, but as time went by, he started to change his thoughts. It was as if something had interfered with his conscience, making him adopt a liberal view. Blair began to hate the dirty job of breaking strikes and maintaining order among the locals. After going through these situations, it is likely that Blair started developing a hatred for what the government was doing. It became clear to him that he could not go on being a member of a regime that was oppressing other people. In those days, prisons overflowed, and the villages were destroyed and burnt to the ground. When someone sees other individuals undergoing too much suffering at the hands of his or her people, he or she may become affected.

In this case, Blair saw that enough was enough, and he could not continue being a part of the imperial government. It might have been wise for Blair to refrain from writing about controversial political issues at the time. However, the experience he had in Burma made him adopt a liberal view and start criticizing governments. Five years in Burma was enough to change Eric Blair into George Orwell, a man who hated imperialism at all costs. As Chen writes, “Five years in Burma had transformed Eric Blair into “George Orwell”, a man who hated the imperialism I was serving with bitterness which I probably cannot make clear” (1). Christie adds that “Orwell’s political lines started to fuel with the increasing loathing that he developed towards imperialism. He decided that he was going to satirize the absurd claims by the British colonialists regarding their racial superiority” (1). Going to Burma and later changing his mind about the actions of the British Imperial government proves that Orwell did some self-analysis. He observed the atrocities being directed to the locals and made a decision that it was not fair at all.

To get a deeper insight of the works of Orwell, one has to dig further into his experiences as a police officer. For example, while in Spain, Orwell recollected about the conditions that were present on the battlefield. At first, he was fascinated by the fact that workers had taken over the city of Barcelona. It becomes evident that Orwell argued that the rich were cruel because they exploited the poor. In Barcelona, he came across a working class that was fast turning into a class for itself. It appears that Orwell wanted the poor members of the society to rise to the occasion and start taking advantage of the available opportunities (Chen 1). Venturing into controversial political topics and issues was a chance to enlighten the members of the public about what was taking place. However, the thrill he had experienced dwindled after he was put on the front line. “Orwell’s writing was the source of as much controversy during his life as it was when left and right fought over his literary corpse after his death (Chen 1).”Orwell did not like the conditions that the soldiers faced while on the battlefield. They had to put up with muddy trenches, the terrifying presence of rats, drenched dugouts, human excrements, and infestations of lice. What kind of a government lets its citizens face such conditions in the name of fighting its enemies? Additionally, the Imperial soldiers had antiquated weaponry, as well as inadequate training. If the government wanted them to defeat its enemies, would it not have trained them well and given them superior weapons? His experience in Spain can help us answer the question regarding Orwell’s focus on controversial political topics. It is clear that he saw the top government officials and leaders as being individuals who only cared about themselves. In particular, they wanted the British Empire to fight its enemies to push forward their personal agendas. These experiences made him criticize dictators regarding their selfish nature and treatment of their subjects.

Orwell’s essays also help in providing answers to the question of why he preferred to cover controversial political issues. One such essay, “Shooting an Elephant”, tells us of an experience he had in Burma. He sees an elephant that has run amok and is using its knees to beat a bunch of grass. He aims at the elephant decides to pull the trigger, but the beast seems to remain standing. However, a mysterious and terrible change comes over the elephant’s body and every line on its body changes. All of a sudden the elephant appears struck, shrunk, and immensely old. At this point, questions are likely to start crossing the minds of the readers. What did Orwell want to represent after using the elephant as an example? What message did he want to pass across to the audience? Assessing the essay closely, one can conclude that Orwell was representing a political issue. (Paxman 1). Paxman states, “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it’ (1). In particular, he wanted to demonstrate that the imperial project taking place in Burma was futile. Earlier, Orwell stated that the life of a white man in the East proved to be a struggle and could not be laughed at. In his bibliography, it is written “Orwell took all sorts of jobs to make ends meet, including being a dishwasher” (1). He goes on to say that he killed the elephant so as not to look like a fool. It becomes clear that Orwell hated imperialism because he acknowledged that imperialism was not going to be a success. Having experienced the difficulties that white men faced in the East, he addresses the issue for people to know his discontent with it. The stance that Orwell adopts on the issue of imperialism paints a man who seems to know all its negative effects. He believes that countries in the East need to be given the chance to rule themselves and make their own decisions. He took it upon himself to try and create awareness about the disadvantages of imperialism.

Looking at Orwell’s style of writing, he had his reasons as to why he wrote the essay praising the Common Toad and other texts. For instance, when he wrote the essay he was referring to the spring political season but not about the toads. This is confirmed by The Orwell Prize “I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of Spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets” (1). The article also adds that“As for Spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters” (The Orwell Prize 1). Additionally, When he was a young boy, he wrote for the sake of writing by making up stories or describing scenes. “However, as he grew up, his writing started to evolve, and he began to focus mostly on political issues” (Wengraf 1). Additionally, Wengaf writes that “Orwell did not become a militant in and of the working class movement, nor did he adopt the world outlook of the workers’ movement, that is, Marxism. Rather he adopted the role of the self-conscious outsider who, while investigating the conditions of the workers and the poor (and sympathizing with them), would retain his individual independence and detachment” (1). He provided four reasons that drive people to write. A close assessment of these issues can help us understand why he decided to follow a political dimension in his writing. The first reason why people write, according to Orwell, is because of sheer egoism. Pure egoism occurs when writers become extremely self-centered and vain, making them desire writing about themselves. In this case, they hope to show the world what they can do or make their opinions and views noted. Could Orwell have focused on controversial political issues to make his opinions and views prominent? The second reason for writing is aesthetic enthusiasm among the writers. In this case, Orwell postulated that people write because they take pleasure in the words and beauty of the world. Such writers hope to express and share their valuable experiences with their audience. At this point, we get to understand why he focused on the issue of imperialism. Going to Burma opened his eyes on the suffering the locals were facing at the hands of the British police officers. Therefore, he focused on topics that would allow him to share his experiences with his audience while serving as a law-enforcement officer. The third reason for people to write is because of historical impulse. Such types of writers have an interest in facts concerning the contemporary world, and they want to record them to inform future generations. Orwell must have wanted the next generation to understand and appreciate the political landscape during his time. In this case, he decided to write his texts and essays following a political landscape to educate future generations on the predicaments at the time. The fourth reason for people to write is because of political considerations. Writers with this motive aim to change their societies through raising awareness, altering peoples’ perceptions, and so on. It is evident that to Orwell, this is the most important reason for writing. During his time, momentous political revolutions were occurring in Europe, World Wars were ensuing, and grim totalitarian regimes such as Nazism and Stalinism were reigning. He made it his responsibility to raise awareness on issues that were of political importance.

Orwell was said to be a self-described socialist, as a result of the lessons he learned in his early life. His experiences in Burma turned him into an anti-imperialist who wanted to expose the oppression of the poor and working class. As portrayed in the NPR article, “Orwell had lived in Burma in the 1920s as an officer in the Imperial Police Force” (1). This experience shaped his writings. Moreover, he wanted to increase the rights of the poor and the working class in the society. He became a contradictory and controversial writer who took diverse and courageous positions regarding his works. The essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” paints a clear picture of a person who hated what the dictators of the time were doing. He acknowledged that the only platform he was going to use to reach these dictators was his writing. He became obsessed with criticizing Stalinism, especially towards the end of his life. In the essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad”, Orwell argues that “So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it” (Paxman 1). He wanted people to understand that regardless of what the dictators were doing, they could not stop them from enjoying what they wanted. Therefore, Orwell focused on controversial political issues because he wanted to promote awareness among the people.