So here I go with my first blog-dip into the world of George Orwell, and we start with an essay entitled A Hanging, first published in The Adelphi magazine, and also in the 1950 volume Shooting an Elephant. I have it as one of the essays in the Penguin 1975 collection, Decline of the English Murder and other Essays.
I think, to appreciate his work better, a little background information would be useful. Eric Blair (for that was his real name, he used George Orwell as a nom de plume, but never actually changed his name as such) was born in India in 1903 into what he described as a “lower-upper-middle class family.” His mother wanted him to have a public school education, but they could not afford the fees. So he went to St Cyprian’s, a prep school in Eastbourne, on a scholarship. He was never told that he was there on reduced fees, but he soon realised that he was from a poorer background from most of his cohort. He gained a scholarship to Wellington School, which he hated, and whilst there gained a King’s Scholarship to Eton, which he enjoyed, remaining there until 1921.
He didn’t show great academic promise at Eton, so bypassed the prospect of university and joined the Imperial Police, the forerunner of the Indian Police service. He was stationed in Burma, where his maternal grandmother lived, and he worked in the police service there for five years from 1922. After returning to England on leave, he resigned from the Indian Police to become a full-time writer. Orwell drew on his experiences in Burma to write not only A Hanging, but also the essay Shooting an Elephant and the novel Burmese Days.
It’s not known whether the event described in A Hanging was real, fictional, or a combination of the two. It is known that attending hangings was considered a rite of passage for young police officers – and indeed it was a legal requirement that there should be a police presence for every such event. It appears that Orwell didn’t care to talk about this essay in future years, which may suggest that it had a truly shocking affect on the young man.
It’s a short, calm, unemotional and reserved description of the hanging of an unnamed man for an unnamed crime. The language is measured but descriptive, occasionally sensuous, as with the description of the warders crowding around the prisoner, “their hands always on him in a careful caressing grip […] it was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.” And when he describes how, just before the moment of death, “everyone had changed colour. The Indians had gone grey like bad coffee” – that’s a great simile that you can both see and smell in your mind’s eye.
Although he’s going through the motions of what his job requires, the young Blair cannot contain his feeling for both the “unspeakable wrongness” of taking a life, and for the unintentional ludicrous humour that can arise from it. He is moved by the natural act of the prisoner to avoid a puddle whilst being marched to the gallows – it’s this automatic reaction that reveals the humanity of the condemned man, the fact that his brain and body functions are completely normal, that shocks the writer into recognising the awful truth, that “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.”
Orwell relies on the evidence of his eyes and ears to relay the situation to us. He takes everything in, and mentally processes it, without hysteria or endorsement, purely as a witness to what is clearly a routine event. He observes that the prisoner is “a puny wisp of a man”, with “a thick sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body”. He “watched the bare brown back of the prisoner […] he walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees”. The prisoner never reacts or resists, and only when the noose is around his neck does he cry out to his god. “It was a high, reiterated cry of Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!, not urgent and fearful like a prayer or cry for help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell.” Through his writing, we can hear that slow, mantra-like cry to God for ourselves, as Orwell’s simple words become a conduit from the prisoner to the reader.
Juxtaposed with the ritual solemnity of the procedure, are two humorous events. The first involves a stray dog, unexpectedly breaking into the procession and barking gleefully, even jumping up at the prisoner and licking his face, much to the fury of the superintendent in charge. It reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem 465, where just as the narrator is laid out on a bed ready to die, “and then it was there interposed a fly….” and all attention is diverted away from the sombre “main event” by a trivial irritant.
The second comes after the body has been hanged, and the hangman starts regaling the officers with a story about a condemned prisoner who wouldn’t let go of the cage bars when they went to take him out. ““It took six warders to dislodge him, three pulling at each leg. We all reasoned with him, “my dear fellow,” we said, “think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us! But no, he would not listen! Ach, he was very troublesome!” I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the superintendent grinned in a tolerant way.” As the piece ends, the Burmese magistrate starts laughing again at the thought of “pulling at his legs”. The final sentences are: ”We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.”
It’s this mix of the mundane and the extraordinary, as well as the extinct and the living, that gives this piece tremendous power. From the intensity of the death, we go straight to the chattiness of the breakfast. I also admire how we get a strong impression of the characters involved in the process, even though they say and do little. We know the superintendent is an impatient, authoritative man, but with the supportive kindness to share out his whisky, and to allow the prisoner to say his prayer. We know that Francis is a garrulous type, who wins favour by spinning a few stories to break the tension. The Eurasian boy is only there to try to impress Blair with his generosity with cigarettes and his “classy European style” silver cigarette case, probably to gain some preferment. We learn that Blair himself, whilst trying to hold in all his emotions and reactions to the event, can’t resist bursting into laughter like everyone else as a nervous reaction to what he’s endured. Even the dog backs away from the gallows, “sobered and conscious of having misbehaved itself”. And we never forget that the prisoner is a human being too, side-stepping puddles and spontaneously urinating through fear at the news that his appeal had been dismissed.
So many thoughts packed into six short pages, without the writer ever having to over-emphasise or sensationalise. It’s a challenge for the reader to wish to read an account of a hanging for pleasure, but its power and insight is very enjoyable to read. A very impressive short piece.
After A Hanging, he wrote two more essays, Hop-Picking in October 1931 and Common Lodging Houses in September 1932. I’ll take the first of those two next, hopefully in the next couple of weeks.