Essay George Orwell A Hanging

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A Hanging (1931) is a short essay written by George Orwell, first published in August 1931 in the British literary magazine The Adelphi. Set in Burma, where Orwell (under his real name of Eric Arthur Blair) had served in the British Imperial Police from 1922 to 1927, it describes the execution of a criminal (Wikipedia).

This text is very suitable for the N5 and Higher NON FICTION PROSE question. At N5 only one of the two prose questions will mention non-fiction so make sure you choose the right one. At Higher there will be a separate non fiction prose section with three questions in it.

You need to look out for questions about an essay or work of journalism which looks at important social, moral or ethical issues. Other N5 speciment papers mention 'important themes'. You should also consider narrative techniques and how the 'voice' of writer comes across (for example in the moment of epiphany and the behaviour of the dog).

 You could argue that the work also had a political influence as Orwell sought to influence public opinion against hanging. In 1931 hanging was commonplace in the United Kingdom and the British Empire (as the Commonwealth was then called).


2011 question 10 “A Hanging”

 Choose a non fiction text in which the writer expresses outrage or shock about an issue which you feel is important.

Show how the writer conveys the emotion and discuss to what extent this emotional response enhances your understanding of the issue.


“A Hanging” by George Orwell is a non-fiction text in which the writer expresses his outrage and opposition to the issue of the use of capital punishment. He expresses his outrage through his selection of detail, turning point and by cleverly transferring some of his thoughts and feelings onto the appearance of a dog.


            The essay is set in Burma during the 1920’s, when Orwell was stationed there as a policeman. He retells the incident of a hanging of a Hindu man where he witnesses what would seem a minor incident which will form a turning point in his views about the use of capital punishment.


            In order to help us to understand his thoughts about capital punishment Orwell selects his detail carefully. He begins with his description of the weather that day describing it as “a sodden morning” with “a sickly light, like yellow tinfoil”. The use of the pathetic fallacy adds an ominous atmosphere creating a mood which is dark and foreboding. Orwell then gives detailed description of the condemned cells as being “small animal cages.” this expression suggests that the conditions were inhumane. All of this infers Orwell’s growing unhappiness about the treatment of the prisoners and suggests his outrage about the way they were treated.


            Having described the conditions Orwell moves on to give detail about the prisoner himself describing him as “a puny wisp of a man with… vague liquid eyes” it is important that Orwell tells us nothing of his crime which may influence our view, instead Orwell characterises the Hindu as weak and unthreatening. 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 condemned men are treated.


            As they head toward the gallows a dog appears. Orwell states “a dreadful thing happened… a dog appeared and bounded among us with a loud volley of barks.” The word choice “dreadful” suggests Orwell’s shock and disapproval but underneath this Orwell skilfully places his own thoughts and feelings especially later in the essay. The dog jumps up on the prisoner and licks his face unlike the humans who intend to kill the Hindu the dog expresses friendliness. This friendly act makes the inhumane actions of the execution party seem even more outrageous by contrast.


            A further technique Orwell uses to express his outrage against capital punishment is the use of a turning point. On the way to the gallows Orwell notices the detail of the prisoner “stepping slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.” The double alliteration draws our attention to the importance of this incident to the structure of the essay and to the moment of epiphany. Orwell states: “it is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy conscious man.” At this moment the wrongness of capital punishment becomes clear to Orwell. Orwell uses imagery to explain his new thinking: “I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.” Just as a full tide suggests water at its highest point, so too this man’s life was also full, Orwell says his skin was still renewing, nails were growing etc… the word choice “unspeakable wrongness” expresses Orwell’s outrage/clear view/ strong opinion that capital punishment in any circumstances is morally wrong because no human has the right to take the life of another.


            The execution of the Hindu is then further described is vivid detail. The Hindu man called out rhythmically to his god “Ram! Ram! Ram!” building up an unbearable tension. Orwell uses imagery to describe the execution party: “the Indians had gone grey like bad coffee” just as bad coffee is discoloured and distasteful the change in colour expresses Orwell’s distaste about the hanging itself. Orwell tells us “There was a clanking noise then a dead silence” the short sentence and the use of onomatopoeia in “clanking” drawing our attention to how swift and easy it was to take the man’s life. 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.


            In conclusion “A Hanging” by George Orwell clearly is a non-fiction text where the writer’s outrage is expressed. Orwell makes his emotional reactions clear by often cleverly transferring them onto the role of the dog is this text. The use of turning point enhances our understanding of the issue of capital punishment by making it clear how wrong it is to take life from a living being.


Symbols in "A Hanging"

Gallows: An obvious symbol of execution, of one man (or authority) taking the life of another

Superintendent's 'stick': His symbol of authority (of British rule in Burma)

"March": the warders march side by side with the prisoner, symbolic of all being on the same journey together towards death. There is a fixed outcome for all of us.

"Water": symbolic of life, "puddle" "... a life short ... in full tide"

"Dog": symbolises (embodies) emotional responses to the hanging - full of friendliness, life, love towards the condemned man, shocked and timorous after the execution

File Attachments


It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like
yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We
were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with
double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet
by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of
drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the
inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the
condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.

One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a puny
wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick,
sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the
moustache of a comic man on the films. Six tall Indian warders were
guarding him and getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by
with rifles and fixed bayonets, while the others handcuffed him, passed a
chain through his handcuffs and fixed it to their belts, and lashed his
arms tight to his sides. They crowded very close about him, with their
hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while
feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish
which is still alive and may jump back into the water. But he stood quite
unresisting, yielding his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly
noticed what was happening.

Eight o'clock struck and a bugle call, desolately thin in the wet air,
floated from the distant barracks. The superintendent of the jail, who
was standing apart from the rest of us, moodily prodding the gravel with
his stick, raised his head at the sound. He was an army doctor, with a
grey toothbrush moustache and a gruff voice. "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?"

Francis, the head jailer, a fat Dravidian in a white drill suit and gold
spectacles, waved his black hand. "Yes sir, yes sir," he bubbled. "All
iss satisfactorily prepared. The hangman iss waiting. We shall proceed."

"Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can't get their breakfast till
this job's over."

We set out for the gallows. Two warders marched on either side of the
prisoner, with their rifles at the slope; two others marched close
against him, gripping him by arm and shoulder, as though at once pushing
and supporting him. The rest of us, magistrates and the like, followed
behind. Suddenly, when we had gone ten yards, the procession stopped
short without any order or warning. A dreadful thing had happened--a
dog, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard. 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.
It was a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah. For a moment it
pranced round us, and then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a
dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to lick his face. Everyone
stood aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.

"Who let that bloody brute in here?" said the superintendent angrily.
"Catch it, someone!"

A warder, detached from the escort, charged clumsily after the dog, but
it danced and gambolled just out of his reach, taking everything as part
of the game. A young Eurasian jailer picked up a handful of gravel and
tried to stone the dog away, but it dodged the stones and came after us
again. Its yaps echoed from the jail wails. The prisoner, in the grasp of
the two warders, looked on incuriously, as though this was another
formality of the hanging. It was several minutes before someone managed
to catch the dog. Then we put my handkerchief through its collar and
moved off once more, with the dog still straining and whimpering.

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of
the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound
arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never
straightens his knees. 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. And once, in spite of the men who gripped
him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized 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. All the organs of his body were working
--bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues
forming--all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be
growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air
with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the
grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned--reasoned
even about puddles. 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.

The gallows stood in a small yard, separate from the main grounds of the
prison, and overgrown with tall prickly weeds. It was a brick erection
like three sides of a shed, with planking on top, and above that two
beams and a crossbar with the rope dangling. The hangman, a grey-haired
convict in the white uniform of the prison, was waiting beside his
machine. He greeted us with a servile crouch as we entered. At a word
from Francis the two warders, gripping the prisoner more closely than
ever, half led, half pushed him to the gallows and helped him clumsily up
the ladder. Then the hangman climbed up and fixed the rope round the
prisoner's neck.

We stood waiting, five yards away. The warders had formed in a rough
circle round the gallows. And then, when the noose was fixed, the
prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of
"Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!", not urgent and fearful like a prayer or a cry for
help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell. The dog
answered the sound with a whine. The hangman, still standing on the
gallows, produced a small cotton bag like a flour bag and drew it down
over the prisoner's face. But the sound, muffled by the cloth, still
persisted, over and over again: "Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!"

The hangman climbed down and stood ready, holding the lever. Minutes
seemed to pass. The steady, muffled crying from the prisoner went on and
on, "Ram! Ram! Ram!" never faltering for an instant. The superintendent,
his head on his chest, was slowly poking the ground with his stick;
perhaps he was counting the cries, allowing the prisoner a fixed number--
fifty, perhaps, or a hundred. Everyone had changed colour. The Indians
had gone grey like bad coffee, and one or two of the bayonets were
wavering. We looked at the lashed, hooded man on the drop, and listened
to his cries--each cry another second of life; the same thought was in
all our minds: oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable

Suddenly the superintendent made up his mind. Throwing up his head he
made a swift motion with his stick. "Chalo!" he shouted almost fiercely.

There was a clanking noise, and then dead silence. The prisoner had
vanished, and the rope was twisting on itself. I let go of the dog, and
it galloped immediately to the back of the gallows; but when it got there
it stopped short, barked, and then retreated into a corner of the yard,
where it stood among the weeds, looking timorously out at us. We went
round the gallows to inspect the prisoner's body. He was dangling with
his toes pointed straight downwards, very slowly revolving, as dead as a

The superintendent reached out with his stick and poked the bare body; it
oscillated, slightly. "HE'S all right," said the superintendent. He
backed out from under the gallows, and blew out a deep breath. The moody
look had gone out of his face quite suddenly. He glanced at his
wrist-watch. "Eight minutes past eight. Well, that's all for this
morning, thank God."

The warders unfixed bayonets and marched away. The dog, sobered and
conscious of having misbehaved itself, slipped after them. We walked out
of the gallows yard, past the condemned cells with their waiting
prisoners, into the big central yard of the prison. The convicts, under
the command of warders armed with lathis, were already receiving their
breakfast. They squatted in long rows, each man holding a tin pannikin,
while two warders with buckets marched round ladling out rice; it seemed
quite a homely, jolly scene, after the hanging. 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

The Eurasian boy walking beside me nodded towards the way we had come,
with a knowing smile: "Do you know, sir, our friend (he meant the dead
man), when he heard his appeal had been dismissed, he pissed on the floor
of his cell. From fright.--Kindly take one of my cigarettes, sir. Do you
not admire my new silver case, sir? From the boxwallah, two rupees eight
annas. Classy European style."

Several people laughed--at what, nobody seemed certain.

Francis was walking by the superintendent, talking garrulously. "Well,
sir, all hass passed off with the utmost satisfactoriness. It wass all
finished--flick! like that. It iss not always so--oah, no! I have known
cases where the doctor wass obliged to go beneath the gallows and pull
the prisoner's legs to ensure decease. Most disagreeable!"

"Wriggling about, eh? That's bad," said the superintendent.

"Ach, sir, it iss worse when they become refractory! One man, I recall,
clung to the bars of hiss cage when we went to take him out. You will
scarcely credit, sir, that it took six warders to dislodge him, three
pulling at each leg. We 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 wass very troublesome!"

I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the
superintendent grinned in a tolerant way. "You'd better all come out and
have a drink," he said quite genially. "I've got a bottle of whisky in
the car. We could do with it."

We went through the big double gates of the prison, into the road.
"Pulling at his legs!" exclaimed a Burmese magistrate suddenly, and burst
into a loud chuckling. We all began laughing again. At that moment
Francis's anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny. We all had a drink
together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a
hundred yards away.

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