How does postcolonial theory apply to "A Hanging"?
Postcolonial theory applies to George Orwell's essay "A Hanging" by showing empathy for the Burmese man condemned to death and, in so doing, critiquing British imperialism.
Postcolonial theory looks at a work of literature or a situation from the point of view of the colonized, not the colonizer. George Orwell's essay "A Hanging" can be considered postcolonial because it builds empathy for the Burmese man condemned to death and examines the negative impact of the death penalty.
The essay never tells us what the prisoner—or any of the prisoners condemned to death—did wrong or tries to justify the British for executing the man in question. Instead, it critiques the death penalty. The narrator states,
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 goes on to describe the execution as a tragic loss of the life of a real human being in the prime of life with gifts to offer the world:
one mind less, one world less.
The narrator builds sympathy for the Burmese man as he walks to his execution by continuing to emphasize his humanity. The prisoner says "ram" over and over again quietly, as if praying. It is anguishing for everyone to wait for the signal to go ahead with the execution, knowing that a real person is about to die. Afterwards, we learn that the man wet himself in fear when he found out his appeal to stay his execution was denied, a very human reaction to a terrible fate.
The essay goes to lengths to show the cruelty of the way imperial Britain hands out the death penalty to Native people. Not only does it cut lives short, but it dehumanizes those who have to participate in the system, as is shown by the joking and reactions after the execution as people try to deal with their profound discomfort at this use of fear to stay in control.
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