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

Expert Answers
jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The thesis of "A Hanging" by Orwell is that people dismiss the deaths of others too casually. The story is about a hanging that Orwell witnessed when he served as a member of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, when it was controlled by the British. The full humanity of the man who is to be executed comes to Orwell when Orwell sees the prisoner step aside to avoid a puddle. When the man cries out for his god, Ram, when he is about to die, Orwell senses the collective urge just to end the man's life. This desire arises from the crowd watching. Orwell says:

"We looked at the lashed, hooded man on the drop, and listened to his cries — each cry another second of life; the same thought was in all our minds: oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable noise!"

After the man is executed, the crowd reacts with relief. Several people laugh--at what, no one is certain. The head jailer speaks with distaste of prisoners who make the execution too difficult, and the prisoners sit down to their breakfast with cheer. Orwell senses that the crowd has too easily dismissed the idea that the execution has robbed a man of his life and that they are too willing to move quickly on from the brutality of what they have done. They regard the man's life with too little respect.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To work out the thesis of "A Hanging," we need to be clear about what Orwell is telling us in this story. For example, looking at the text, it is clear that "A Hanging" deals with Orwell's views about capital punishment. Specifically, he takes an anti-capital-punishment stance. This is shown very clearly in his thoughts about the prisoner:

His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned—even about puddles. 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 be gone—one mind less, one world less.

In other words, Orwell is struck by the humanity of this prisoner. Although this man has done wrong, he is physically, emotionally, and biologically identical to the police officers around him. He is a living, breathing person about to be cut down in the prime of his life.

So what we learn from "A Hanging" is that, based on this experience in Burma, Orwell disagrees with capital punishment because it dehumanizes a person and senselessly cuts short a life.