George Orwell Questions and Answers

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Would it make a difference if Orwell had set his anecdotal essay, "A Hanging," in his native England rather than in a colonialist setting in Asia?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think that one of the fundamental points in the essay is a universal understanding about capital punishment.  It is at this point where Orwell is able to speak about the universal condition of life and the unnatural death that is part of state sanctioned punishment:

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. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working - bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming - all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. 

This is a universal condition in which Orwell understands the implications of the death penalty.  I think that this would be an understanding that would emerge in England or in Burma.  The universality of life is a lesson that can be understood in either setting.

Where there could be a potential difference would be in how easy and banal the disposal of the prisoner was seen in the essay.  Orwell recounts how the destruction of a life is greeted with the need to maintain schedules, and an acceleration of the process to "get it over with."  There is not much in way of reflection about what is being done and this might be due to the fact that it is a Burmese person being killed.  The dehumanization of the prisoner is done with so much ease and this might be attributed to the fact that he is Burmese and not British.  However, this might be only a cosmetic difference, as the message of the story is that there is a universal disregard for human life when punishments like the death penalty are viewed with such ease and lack of reflection.

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