Orwell’s reflection on a hanging should trouble America’s conscience.

Eight decades ago an aspiring London author made his literary breakthrough with the publication of a powerful piece of short prose entitled “A Hanging.” The writer’s name? Eric Blair.

Two years later Blair took a pen name in order not to embarrass his family with his forthcoming Jack London-type book on sharing Depression-era poverty with East End tramps. The book was Down and Out in Paris and London. The author? “George Orwell.”

“A Hanging,” published in the Adelphi in August 1931, is regarded as a classic today, often anthologized in literature textbooks and taught in introductory rhetoric and composition courses to undergraduates. Appearing a little more than two years after the author returned from what he called “five wasted years” as a policeman in British-occupied Burma, it is based on Blair-Orwell’s experience of working in the Indian Imperial Police. Blair served in Burma—now Myanmar—during 1922-27, resigning his commission in January 1928 while home on leave. He never returned to Asia.

“A Hanging” tells the story of the execution of an unidentified Indian man. We learn neither his name nor anything about his background. Nor do we know his crime. He is an Everyman, described only as “a brown, sullen, puny wisp of a man with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes.” He could be anyone—and that is the point.

The first-person narrator is also unidentified. Orwell does not want to limit the reader’s sympathies by diverting us into details that may distract from the essay’s punch. “I watched a man hanged once,” he writes simply. “There is no question that everybody concerned knew this to be a dreadful, unnatural action.” The narrator reinforces the point by drawing attention to the prisoner’s humanity, as he accidentally urinates on hearing his death sentence. Or as he—a dead man walking—diligently sidesteps a puddle. Orwell writes,

’til 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 while 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 gone—one mind less, one world less.

“A Hanging” is a prose gem, a brilliant 2,000-word burst of arresting insight and poignant feeling. But is it nonfiction or fiction? Scholars have disputed for years whether or not it is straight autobiography.

One of Orwell’s biographers, the late Sir Bernard Crick, expended enormous effort in his pioneering study George Orwell: A Life (1980) to find out whether Orwell had ever indeed witnessed or participated in a hanging during his numerous postings in Burma. Crick was able to establish the exact number of executions, and to specify their type, in every location in which Orwell worked as a policeman. Yet he could find no evidence, either in official correspondence or from any witnesses, as to whether or not Orwell was present or involved in the executions.

Given the fact that dozens or even a few hundred executions occurred in each of the locations of his postings, however, it is overwhelmingly likely that he witnessed many of them. I am absolutely convinced he did. Maung Htin Aung, who as a schoolboy knew Orwell and later became rector of the University of Rangoon, wrote that Orwell attended executions.

The scholarly consensus today is that “A Hanging” is “faction,” an autobiographically based essay in which Orwell employed fictional techniques and unleashed his imagination to transform a (probable) real-life event—or composite of events—into an enduring work of art. Similar scholarly debates have long raged as to whether Orwell ever shot an elephant in Burma, given that the genre of his other celebrated essay about that country, “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), is also ambiguous.

The success of “A Hanging” turns on the fact that its narrative gradually and ingeniously shifts: its final paragraphs generate a perspective that ultimately induces us to consider ourselves the guilty parties—as executioners bereft of any moral high ground—rather than the condemned man. As the Indian convict approaches the gallows, a dog (“half Airedale, half pariah”) races toward him, barking loudly, and jumps up to lick his face. Guards try to grab the dog, but it darts in and out among them, evading their grasp. The execution proceeds despite the distraction. The scene closes with the dog howling in a corner as the prisoner hangs lifeless before the crowd. Orwell, who does not mince words about his position, concludes tersely that, “when a murderer is hanged, there is only one person at the ceremony who is not guilty of murder.”

“A Hanging” represents an astonishing performance by an unknown 28-year-old writer. It also demonstrates the first signs of the mature style showcased in Orwell’s great essays of the 1940s (such as “Politics and the English Language” and “Such, Such Were the Joys”), writings that have established him since his death in 1950 as what might be called “the prose laureate” of Great Britain. Characterized by acute observation, telling description, and pointed commentary, those essays also exhibit a powerful, understated language that makes them unforgettable.

It all began with “A Hanging,” which marks Orwell’s breakthrough both in artistic and professional terms. The essay signifies a leap of talent far above his previous work. It was really his first publication that deserves the name “literature.” Until this point, Orwell had published nothing more than a few book reviews and a handful of newspaper articles, along with a pedestrian piece of expository prose about his experience with the tramps of London. Nothing prepared literary London for this essay, and it strengthened its author’s resolve to persist and complete “Lady Poverty,” his work-in-progress on low life in London and Paris. (That was the manuscript he revised and completed the following year under the title Down and Out in Paris and London, published in January 1933.)

But the 80th anniversary of this essay’s appearance should also prick our conscience as Americans. True, public hangings no longer occur here. Yet capital punishment remains a regular part of American life—and our execution figures vastly exceed those of Myanmar.

My own home state of Texas has conducted 472 executions since 1982, with totals for some years in the last decade at 40. With a mere 7 percent of the national population, Texas exceeds 40 percent of the capital-punishment cases. (The number of executions in the U.S. now approaches 1,500 since 1976, when capital punishment resumed after a four-year moratorium during which it was suspended in all 50 states.) Today in Texas 306 citizens, predominantly black men, sit on death row.

Britain and the rest of Europe—and in fact virtually all of the developed world, with only scattered exceptions such as Singapore—outlawed capital punishment decades ago. Even after the recent mass-murder spree in Oslo by Anders Breivik, almost nobody in Norway is calling for his execution. By contrast, the U.S. still practices capital punishment with a vengeance. We do so despite the fact that it has proved sorely lacking as a deterrent—the usual rationale for its continued practice. (Also despite the fact that, in Texas alone, recent DNA research has enabled forensic scientists to determine that at least a half-dozen executions in the last decade were mistakes. A couple of Texans on death row have recently been released on new DNA evidence.)

So we Americans above all should commemorate this literary anniversary, and not just as a literary event. We need to reread Eric Blair’s “A Hanging” for political and moral reasons. We need to be reminded that the guilty are not necessarily—or only—those who are convicted of crimes. Let us pause and consider Orwell’s ending when we presume to sit in judgment and take another’s life.

John Rodden is a visiting professor in the department of foreign languages and literature at Tunghai University, Taiwan. His books include The Unexamined Orwell.

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