By John Rossi
Ninety years ago this month, an obscure English literary journal published the essay "A Hanging" by Eric Arthur Blair. It was among the earliest of the writings that would one day make Blair well-known to us, though chiefly by his pen name, George Orwell.
"A Hanging" dealt with the execution of an obscure Indian - "a brown, sullen . . . puny wisp of a man with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes" - during Orwell's service as an imperial policeman in Burma during the 1920s. The essay's vivid prose, combined with the mundane details of the execution, makes it a powerful piece of writing, one that ultimately produces an unforgettable indictment of capital punishment with more impact than any editorial.
The man featured in the essay has been condemned to death, but the reader is never told what his crime was. That detail might have confused matters and served to divert the reader's sympathy.
"I watched a man hanged once," Orwell writes. "There is no question that everybody concerned knew this to be a dreadful, unnatural action."
The essay begins with the Indian man being told that his execution is to be carried out, whereupon he loses control of his bladder and urinates on the prison floor. With his hands tied behind his back, he is then marched off to the gallows. Orwell writes that, "He walked clumsily . . . in that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees."
Two incidents in the essay humanize the condemned man, creating sympathy for him in the reader's mind. First, as the prisoner is being led across the yard, he moves to avoid a puddle of water.
"It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man," Orwell writes. "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. ... 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 other incident concerns a dog - "half Airedale, half pariah" - that suddenly appears during the group's walk to the gallows, "bounding among us with a loud volley of barks," and then runs up to the prisoner and tries to lick his face. The dog is shooed away but continues to run around the yard, barking and avoiding the guards. When the prisoner is hanged - and Orwell offers few details of the hanging itself - the dog suddenly howls and slinks away to a corner.
Orwell never expressly editorialized against capital punishment, but he regarded it as little more than officially sanctioned mob vengeance. He even opposed the execution of the leading Nazi war criminals on the grounds that it amounted to victor's justice.
Orwell never deviated from that disgust he first experienced as a young man in Burma. He argued that "when a murderer is hanged, there is only one person at the ceremony who is not guilty of murder."