What is the thesis of "A Hanging" by George Orwell?


George Orwell

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The central thesis of this account of Orwell's witnessing a hanging in Burma whilst he was a colonial officer there is that capital punishment is profoundly wrong. Orwell describes the horror he feels when he sees a prisoner being led to the gallows and how he realises, when he witnesses this prisoner stepping around a puddle, that he is a human being just like everybody else. Note how he describes this epiphany:

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.

He reflects on how in two minutes, with the death of this prisoner, this would mean "one mind less, one world less." The wrongness of capital punishment is shown by the awkwardness of the men following the hanging and the way they try and distract themselves in poor humour and drink from the reality of what they have done. In this essay, the image of the hanging man, left suspended in air, without being able to hit the ground, becomes a powerful symbol of how wrong cutting off somebody's life in mid-flow is.


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