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Read the essay. Discuss the central theme. In your answer, you should pay particular attention to: structure, narrative point of view.
“A Hanging” is a famous essay written by George Orwell. It is set in Burma in 1931 and recalls Orwell’s time spent as an officer in the British Imperial Police in the 1920’s. Orwell recounts in the first-person narrative the execution of a Hindu prisoner which evokes a powerful epiphany in him. The writer uses a range of literary techniques such as setting, characterisation, irony and language techniques to convey his message that taking another human being’s life and capital punishment are against human nature.
From the onset of the essay, Orwell reveals through his description of setting his inherent feelings towards the execution to come. His describes the jail yard as having “a sickly light like yellow tinfoil” cast over it. The use of the pathetic fallacy adds an ominous atmosphere creating a mood which is dark and foreboding. The colour yellow also emphasises the poor health caused by the awful conditions the prisoners are subject to. The writer goes on to discuss said conditions: “the condemned cells…like small animal cages” to express how inhumane their living conditions are. The bleak, lonesome atmosphere which permeates the prison environment is made known: “a bugle call, desolately thin in the wet air”. All this infers Orwell’s growing unhappiness about the treatment of the prisoners and discomfort towards capital punishment.
Furthermore, Orwell’s characterisation of the condemned man is vital in conveying his message. The prisoner is “a puny wisp of a man” which suggests that he is extremely weak and unthreatening, this is contrasted with the unnecessarily harsh measures taken by the prison guards to restrain him. The Hindu man is “chained”, “handcuffed” and his arms are “lashed tight to his sides”. This vivid description continues to suggest harsh treatment and Orwell’s growing opposition not only to the hanging itself but also to the way the condemned men are treated until their deaths. He is described as having “liquid vague eyes” which highlights the idea that he has accepted his fate and is beyond fighting or attempting to escape. By portraying the prisoner in this way, Orwell humanizes him showing despite the crime he committed (which is never disclosed) he is a fellow human and this treatment and sentence is unforgivable.
Orwell employs irony to illustrate the tragedy of capital punishment, criticizing the apathetic attitudes toward the execution, treatment of prisoners and lamenting the brutal reality of death. The first instance of irony is when a dog escapes into the prison yard. At this point, we see the treatment of animals is better than that of the prisoners and while the dog is allowed to roam free the prisoners are shut away in cages. The dog, an animal also ironically shows more humanity than any of the other execution attendees. “It had made a dash for the prisoner, and jumping up had tried to lick his face.” The dog goes straight to the prisoner opposed to one of the officials. Orwell uses symbolism here to suggest that all people are equal regardless of their circumstances. Moreover, once again the emotional reaction is described through the dog’s behaviour: “it stopped short, barked, and then retreated into a corner of the yard” the word choice “retreated” suggests shock and disgust at what had happened – which is a greater reaction that any human at the site showed. The superintendent’s words “He’s alright” after he has been hung is clearly also ironic as the prisoner’s life has been severed and he is dead and far from ‘alright’. This shows the lack of human compassion the prison guards show towards the condemned.
The turning point when the narrator has his epiphany is provoked when the prisoner, on his way to the gallows, steps aside to avoid stepping in a puddle. At this point the narrator realizes the prisoner was also the same man as himself “walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world.” As he describes the workings of organs still functioning in his body – “bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery” – Orwell emphasizes that the prisoner is the same human being as we are, and shows how wrong it is to take life from a human being, suggesting his implicit condemnation towards the execution. Here, he continues to question the rationality of capital punishment and illuminate the real tragedy of it – “cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”
What’s more, as the hanging itself draws closer, Orwell successfully uses language techniques to support his view on capital punishment. He states “one mind less, one world less.” This anaphora is thought-provoking and makes his message more hitting and memorable. The sounds associated with the prisoners killing are disturbing, to say the least. As the prisoner prepares to die he chants to his god rhythmically “Ram! Ram! Ram!” which causes the tension to build up to an unbearable level. Orwell then uses an onomatopoeia “clanging noise” to draw the reader’s attention to the fragility of life – after all the suspenseful build up, it took only the pull of a lever to kill him.
“A Hanging” by George Orwell is a short essay in which his theme and message are successfully conveyed with the use of a range of literary techniques. Orwell is effective in driving his view that capital punishment is unspeakable wrong and that the act of taking life from another living, breathing human is inconceivable and his disapproval couldn’t be expressed any clearer.
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