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.
George Orwell wrote A Hanging in 1931. You can find it here, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.
It’s not necessarily the quality of the writing – though it is superb – that I marvel it. Rather, it’s the sheer emotional confusion Orwell’s essay has left me in. More than I ever have with any other essay, I truly feel as if I had walked alongside Orwell through his experience.
Let’s start with some context. The essay retells one morning during Orwell’s service in the British Imperial Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927. At the time, Burma was a province in Britain’s Indian Empire. Burma gained its independence in 1948, and today, the sovereign state also goes by the name of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
Orwell’s essay tells the story of a man in the last moments of his life. The man is a prisoner – for what, Orwell never says. We know neither his name nor his history. All we know is that he had been imprisoned, until this particular morning when he is walked down to the gallows, where a bag is placed over his head and he is hanged.
From the beginning, there is a stark contrast between the tension Orwell feels and his companions’ blatant sense of dehumanizing urgency. It’s clear from Orwell’s description of the man that cared enough to humanize him:
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.
Compare that to the words of the jail’s superintendent:
“Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.”
This contrast creates a heavy feeling of conflict within the reader, and it emulates, it seems to me, the conflict Orwell felt at the time. This feeling is amplified when, along the way, the procession is halted by the joyful antics of a dog let loose. The dog even jumps up and tries to lick the prisoner in the face. Here, glee and dread intermingle, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least.
Orwell manages to restrain the dog, and they continue until the man makes it to the gallows and a rope is noosed around his neck. The man begins to cry out in a chant of sorts:
“Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”
The chant goes on for what feels like forever, and as a reader, I felt just as uncomfortable as Orwell writes he and the surrounding crowd did.
And then the floor drops from beneath the man’s feet. He dies, as we knew he would from the start. And as soon as he’s confirmed dead, Orwell and his companions are hit with this palpable sense of relief and, weirdly enough, joy. The strangest part of it all is that I felt it too. Orwell notes the absurdity of it all, of the jolliness in the air and the laughter that follows, and he never makes an attempt to explain it.
I won’t either. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.