What is the irony in "A Hanging" by George Orwell?

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Situational irony is a literary technique in which a particular expectation is created by the author for their readers—yet something quite the opposite happens instead.

In this story, the narrator is preparing to witness a hanging. The mood is solemn, with careful detail given to the way the hanging is...

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Situational irony is a literary technique in which a particular expectation is created by the author for their readers—yet something quite the opposite happens instead.

In this story, the narrator is preparing to witness a hanging. The mood is solemn, with careful detail given to the way the hanging is carried out. The accused doesn't fight those who have condemned him; he seems resolute in his fate. It even seems as though nature itself attempts to intervene in the ending of his life, as a dog unexpectedly emerges and attempts to lick the man's face. (This is ironic itself, as dogs are known to show no form of friendliness to strangers who are aggressive. This characterizes the condemned man as one whose spirit attracts the favor of an unknown dog.) The man is perfectly healthy and even sidesteps a puddle, not wanting to get his feet wet (ironic because within minutes, he will have no further need for those feet). His captors share no joy in this hanging; they wish to get it over with quickly and effectively.

Just before his death, the man begins to call out to his god, not in desperation but "like the tolling of a bell," over and over as the executioner stands ready. There is a building sense that this man will be rescued somehow. The superintendent doesn't immediately signal for the execution, and the man stands with a rope around his neck, tolling out his cry while time stretches on for him.

The irony is that he does die—and almost immediately afterward, the entire group is laughing. The mood that precedes his death and the mood following are sharply different. His death actually lightens the atmosphere as the group jokes about executions gone horribly wrong.

Irony is utilized by Orwell to convey the great burden of capital punishment; the implications of taking a human life which is not yet ready for death in its physical form have the power to corrupt the very souls of everyone involved in such punishments.

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There are multiple instances of irony in George Orwell's short story "A Hanging." Perhaps the most significant example of irony involves the narrator's descriptions of the condemned man, a Hindu man of slight stature with an oversized mustache. This man is to be hanged and, common to narratives depicting the dehumanizing elements of colonialism, represents little more to his British (and allied Indian/Burmese) warders than one more miscreant who has run afoul of colonial rule and consequently been condemned to death. No crime is attributed to this unfortunate fellow, but he has apparently done something to incur the wrath of the British imperialists who govern his land. He is unremarkable and offers no resistance as he is led from his cell to the gallows. There is in Orwell's narrative, however, a moment that causes the author/narrator to reconsider the nature of his and his countrymen's being. As the prisoner is led to the gallows by his Indian warders, observed by their English master, the condemned convict gingerly side-steps a puddle. This seemingly innocuous act triggers in the narrator a revelation concerning the activities he is observing and of which he is complicit:

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.

As evident in Orwell's writings (see, for instance, his essay "Shooting an Elephant in Burma"), the author, raised to administer an empire, has been sensitized to the dehumanizing nature of imperialism. The act of imposing one's rule on another invariably proves degrading and destructive to ruler and ruled alike. The irony in "A Hanging," therefore, resides in the contrast between the "racially and morally superior" British and the dignity evident in the condemned prisoner. This man, who goes to his death chanting "Ram" (a demi-God to Hindus) over and over is treated as a subhuman by the British. The superintendent, a doctor by trade, confirms the success of the execution not by listening to the prisoner's heart, but by poking the dangling body with a stick while pronouncing, "He's all right." Another major instance of irony then follows as another of the subscripted Hindu subservient to the colonial masters offers the narrator a cigarette from his prized silver case, noting that this ostentatious example of material wealth represents "Classy European style."

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To me, the major irony in this story takes place at the end of the story.  It has to do with the way that the various people react to what they have just done.

What is ironic, to me, is that they are pleased that the hanging went well.  It would have been bad, they say, if the man had been dangling, not dead, and have to have his legs pulled to help kill him.  But they do not talk about this as good for the sake of the dead man -- they are saying it is good because it makes it easier for them, the executioners.

To me, this is the irony -- they are not really concerned with the person they have just killed.  Instead, they are concerned with themselves and how the execution affects them.

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