In his essay, "A Hanging", George Orwell recounts an event early in his service as a police magistrate in India during the 1920s, an event that changed his views on death and killing. He seems merely to describe in mundane detail an execution in which he was a participant. However I think that in this essay he shows not only his feeling that there's an "unspeakable wrongness (in) cutting a life short when it is in full tide" but points out, perhaps unintentionally, that we, too, live under a sentence of death.
This story is easily summarized. The warders escort a condemned prisoner from his cell to the gallows. In a moment of comic relief, a young mutt comes bounding along creating mayhem and disrupting the smooth progress of the death party. After several minutes in pursuit, one of the warders finally captures and restrains the beast so that their group may proceed. The prisoner is led up the ladder, the rope fastened about his neck, then after permitting him a few seconds of prayer to his god, the trap is sprung, the man's voice is forever stilled, the magistrates inspect the body, and everyone goes off to have a drink.
Orwell's epiphany comes during that final walk when he realizes that they "were a party of men walking together (experiencing) the same world; and in two minutes, …one of (them) would be gone…." For the first time, he understands that this is not simply a prisoner facing execution. This is another human being. I found myself wondering about that prisoner. What was his name? Did he have a wife and children? Who were his friends? Did he own a dog? In short, what was he like? Why was he sentenced to death? Was he guilty of murder or treason? Of theft or rape? Orwell focuses our attention on the execution yet gives no details of the man's life. He offers us merely the fact of his steady march to the gallows. This I think creates a sense of the implacability of the man's fate.
Orwell creates tension by contrasting the participants' demeanor. The superintendent treats this execution as a job, a nuisance—finish it as quickly as possible so they can feed the other prisoners. The warders surround and hold the prisoner closely "like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water." The dog, "wild with glee", jumps around exuberantly, treating the events as a game, the men as toys. The prisoner, silent and indifferent to events surrounding him at this, the most significant moment of his life, cooperates patiently with his captors' directions. At the end we hear only the calm, eerily persistent repetition of his god's name, an act that, according to Hindu belief, will ensure his immediate entry into Paradise. And Orwell, who starts out thinking of this as just another execution, finally realizes how momentous an event it really is.
Despite his occasionally tedious description of this hanging, Orwell nevertheless offers us a sense of the participants' nervousness. Two of the warders hold the prisoner warily, "with their hands always on (him) in a careful caressing grip…." The dog, jumping affectionately on the prisoner is viewed with shock. The Indian guards react to the prisoner's calm repetition—"Ram! Ram! Ram!"—with slowly mounting horror, as though believing they are destroying a righteous man. The survivors feel enormous relief once "the job (is) done". They all have a drink together, the execution breaking down, temporarily at least, the social barriers between the European conquerors and the "inferior" natives. And Orwell, finally understanding the magnitude of forever stilling a man's voice, shares in their nervous laughter more fully than he probably had after past executions. All of these images show the participants' edgy sense of the solemn responsibility that attaches to the act of killing someone, even as punishment for a crime.
However, this is more than a boringly detailed retelling of the premature end of one man's life. While the author writes of his own realization that execution ends a life before its time, I sense another image here as well. Orwell's prisoner is escorted from his cell to his death. Then his companions walk off, some in one direction, the rest in another. I feel that this symbolizes our own lives as well. We too walk through life from birth until the moment of death. We travel with an escort but finally mount our own scaffolds, and die at the ends of our own ropes. Our companions then continue along their own paths, on the way to their own scaffolds, their own ropes, leaving other companions to walk their own paths in turn. It is a lonely walk.
This idea of being at a boundary of time—of continuity with the future, and of mortal fellowship with a man dead more than a quarter century before my own birth—lends greater poignancy to this essay, and helps me to identify more fully with that nameless prisoner.