Tone in George Orwell’s “A Hanging”

6 June 2016

George Orwell’s “A Hanging” is an essay that tells of the seemingly mundane events that occur on the day a prisoner is hanged. Orwell speaks of his experience of witnessing the delivery of a Hindu prisoner to the gallows, the execution itself, and a short time immediately after that.

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Orwell starts the narrative with a few somber, gloomy descriptions: the “sodden morning of the rains,” “sickly yellow light,” the high walls, and “condemned cells… like small animal cages.”

His narration is full of implied and understated emotion, which serves to highlight what he perceives to be the wrongness of what happened. Instead of imposing emotions upon the reader by describing what he felt, Orwell mostly omits his own feelings from the narrative and instead allows the reader to “witness” the events unfolding as Orwell had witnessed them himself, leaving the reader to respond to the narrative with his or her own emotions.

In his cold and detailed exposition of his observations, Orwell brings to the foreground seemingly inconsequential details surrounding the execution. The superintendent, who says “Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over” and “For God’s sake hurry up, Francis… The man ought to have been dead by this time” seems to treat the coming hanging as nothing more than a chore to be quickly done with. By portraying the treatment of a life as unimportant, Orwell emphasizes the inhumanity and provokes the opposite sentiments in the reader.

Orwell is unmoved by the condemned man’s plight until almost halfway into his narration. His first and most important emotional involvement in the events occurs when he sees the prisoner step aside to avoid a puddle. Stepping aside to avoid a puddle is a very human thing to do, something that he and everyone else would be likely to do as well.

The revelation he experiences upon witnessing the prisoner avoiding the puddle on his way to his own hanging is the most important event of the essay. It serves to convey the Orwell’s main intention of making the reader realize, as he did, the “unspeakable wrongness” of capital punishment. He is never more explicit with his views than when he speaks of “the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”

Unfeelingly Orwell describes the execution itself—the clanking noise, the dead silence. “the rope was twisting on itself” The prisoner was “dangling with his toes pointed straight downwards, very slowly revolving, as dead as a stone.” After the prisoner is hanged, the superintendent pokes the dead body and says “He’s all right,” an unexpected and perhaps inappropriate utterance that again underscores the “unspeakable wrongness” by trivializing what just happened.

Orwell does not simply state that the prisoner repeatedly uttered, “Ram!” right before being hanged, but himself keeps repeating the word to allow the reader to “witness” it as close to firsthand as possible. The repeated utterances of “Ram!” by the prisoner suggest the bawling of a child, imparting a tone of desperation and hopelessness. Furthermore, the prisoner’s firm determination in calling his god contrasts with the discomfiture of those attending the hanging. “Oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable noise!” was what they were all thinking.

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