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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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A Hanging

George Orwell

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this unit, the learners will be able to:

  1. familiarise themselves with the colonial attitude towards the native
  2. get an acquaintance with George Orwell’s thematic engagements
  3. obtain an idea on the literary styles of Orwell
  4. become conscious of the problems in punishments like hanging


The colonial attitude and approach towards the native people are major issues of postcolonial writing. The category of postcolonial literature mainly referred to the literature produced from the perspectives of the native people. It deals with a wide range of issues/topics such as colonial domination, subjugation of the native, power-relation between the colonial authority and the natives, racism and so on. 

Significant of the colonial attitude is the consideration of the colonised as inferior beings with subhuman status. Colonialism considers the white as the superior race, and their standards and values are reflected in public consciousness as the norm and law of the society. Colonial authorities take the native issues lightly and they consider their own causes with maximum care and attention. This becomes quite obvious when it comes to the case of punishment. A reading of “A Hanging” by George Orwell will show you such a biased attitude of the colonial authorities towards the native people.

Key terms

Colonialism- The story projects the presence of the British colonial authority in Burma, and their attitude and approach towards the natives.

Hanging- In the story, hanging is employed as the central metaphor.

Inhuman Gesture– Inhuman acts of the British and jail authorities towards the jail inmates are the spotlights of the story.

6.4.1 Discussion

“A Hanging” by George Orwell was published in Adelphi magazine in 1931 based on his experience in Burma as a policeman in the 1920s. When the essay was first published, it was released in his real name Eric Blair instead of his renowned pen name George Orwell. As Orwell himself admitted, the essay is a story, in the sense it is a fictitious account, rather than being a real incident.

6.4.2 Summary- “A Hanging”

The narrative begins with the description of a jail in Burma on a rainy day. People gathered outside can see the inmates of the jail in their cells remaining silent and covering their body with blankets. These prisoners in their iron cells are like the caged birds. Ridiculing the authorities, the narrator says that these prisoners are “condemned men” who are going to be hanged within one or two weeks.

Orwell dramatically presents the bringing of the prison-inmates out of the cells for hanging them. The person who was brought out of the jail was a Hindu with a shaved head and vague eyes. His big, sprouting moustache, appears incongruous with his short body, which gives the audience an impression of a comic film character. There were six, tall Indian warders to escort him to the gallows. Two of the warders remain there with rifles and the rest of them prepare him to be hanged by handcuffing, chaining, and tying his arms. They take a close position with him, keeping him in their arms’ distance as if to avoid any attempt of escape. He has been treated like a living fish which may anytime turn back to the water. But the man in the chain keeps his composure as if nothing special is happening.

At 8 clock, the superintendent of the jail emerges and raises his voice, saying that it is high time that the man has been hanged and he enquires if everything is ready for the prosecution.

The head jailor, Francis, a Dravidian from India, in his white dress and gold spectacles, responds that everything is satisfactorily prepared and the hangman is waiting and it can be done comfortably now. It is said that he should be executed immediately unless the breakfast of the jailors will be delayed. On either side of the prisoner, there are two warders and the important officials follow them as a procession. But there is an unexpected halt for the procession without any warning. It is due to the unexpected entering of a dog in the procession. As it is unexpected, it is unmanageable for the crowd to control the dog due to its huge size, barking sound, and body movements. The response of the superintendent is: “Who let that bloody brute in here? Catch it, someone!”.

The narrator observes how this energetic and healthy prisoner has been taken to the gallows for hanging. He observes his brown body, strong arms, steady walk and lock of hair. Now, the narrator thinks of the meaning of killing a healthy man who is vibrant with the pulse of life. He says that all his body organs seem working quite brilliantly as his bowles digest the food items, skin is capable of renewing itself, and nails still grow. And he can feel, see and hear properly the people gathered around him. But within minutes all his perceptions and capacities will come to a sudden end.

The meticulous description of the gallows is provided in the story. The gallows is built in a small yard separated from the main ground. The story provides the pictures of weeds in the structure, ropes dangling and the grey-haired hangman in white dress awaiting for the order. As they get word from Francis, the warders bring the prisoner tightly, pushing him to the ladder and the hangman fixes the rope around the convict’s neck.

People gather five yards away from the gallows and the warders circle round the gallows. The man starts chanting “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”. It never appears like a fearful or urgent expression, but it seems very composed and rhythmic in articulation. The head of the man is covered with a cotton bag-like material, hence only a muffled voice of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!” persists.

The hangman, climbing down from the gallows, remains under it, holding the lever. When the superintendent comes to the ground with his stick, some seriousness grapples the people and they become grey. When he shouts ‘chalo’ fiercely, the atmosphere is left with dead silence. Now, it is the time of hanging so that each moment the man produces different sounds. Finally, there emerges a clanking sound and the man is no more. When the people gather around the place in order to inspect the dead body, they realise that he has become just like a stone, dangling with his toe. The superintendent inspecting the dead body with his stick says: ‘he is all right’. Blowing out a deep breath and glancing at his watch, the superintendent says: “Eight minutes past eight. Well, that’s all for this morning, thank God.”

Unfixing their bayonets, the warders march back and the breakfast is served for the prisoners. The prisoners sit in a row and food items are served and all of them appear cheerful and delighted. As they appear relieved, they start chatting loudly. Though the Eurasian boy reminds them of the hanged man, none appears serious, instead they end in laughing aloud without any certainty on why they laugh.

The conversation between superintendent and Francis suggests that this hanging process has been conducted with “utmost satisfactoriness” in contrast to the cases in which the procedures do not come to an end smoothly. They discuss such an incident of hanging. As they fail in their attempt, they remind the convict to “think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us!”. They discuss now that the man referred was an unyielding type and he continuously made troubles to others.

Now the narrator realises that he also laughs in a loud voice and soon the superintendent invites all to accompany him outside in order to share his whisky in the car. All join him and share whisky with him, producing loud voices and enjoying the moment. When these extraordinarily funny incidents take place, the dead body of the prisoner remains within a hundred yards’ distance.

6.4.3 Critical Analysis

The story “A Hanging” by George Orwell unravels the story of a man being ritualistically hanged without any emotional involvement. There are debates on whether the story is fictitious or based on his real experience. George Orwell’s statement that it is a fictitious account and his own statement in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) “I watched a man hanged once; it seemed to me worse than a thousand murders” evoked some controversy over the realistic and fictitious nature of the story.

The central thematic concern of the story is the preparation and arrangement for hanging. The vivid and meticulous descriptions in the story provide a realistic exposure to the readers. The narrator’s description of the climate like the rainy day in Burma makes the readers emotionally bonded with the story. Along with the detailed descriptions on the characters in the story, the minute detailing on the setting offers a complete exposure to the readers. Orwell’s use of “condemned men”, in order to refer to the prisoners, showcases the attitude of the jail authorities towards the jailers. The disturbing bit of information and the existential question that Orwell provides is that these prison inmates are to be hanged within weeks.

Orwell provides a full character sketch of the man who will be hanged soon. He is a Hindu with a shaved head and vague eyes. The character, instead of showing restlessness, keeps his composure. The patience of the man, during the process of his hanging, impresses the narrator as he goes on chanting “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”. He is a Hindu native who has been punished by the British authorities without any reason provided in the story. The explicit incongruity that the readers may notice is that the character’s patience and composure and the approach of the British authorities to the convict, escorting him with six tall guards as if the man tries to escape at any moment.

It is by 8’ o’clock due to the insistence of the superintendent, the process of hanging has been quickened. The head jailer, a fat Dravidian, who speeds up the hanging process as he gets the ultimatum from the superintendent. The entering of the dog creates some unexpected problems and delay in the process and it also provides some comic relief to the grave and tensed moments of the hanging.

The narrator observes the grand procession of the convict, along with guards and jail authorities, who never appears dejected and crestfallen. The narrator also draws the attention of the readers to the healthy physique and appearance of the prisoner to be hanged. Citing the brown body, strong arms and strong lock of hair, the narrator implies that the man deserves to live long and shows the incongruousness of this hanging. Dealing with the anatomical strength of the convict, the narrator says that his organs function quite efficiently, his bowels digest food items properly and his skin and nail are in good condition. But all these well-functioning body organs are forced to put an end. It suggests that this man is not dying but murdered for taking the law into practice.

Orwell employs numerous literary devices to express his emotional involvement in the issue. He employs techniques like sarcasm, fun, irony and contrast to express his ideas properly. As a part of visualising the hanging process, the narrator provides a detailed account of the gallows. The story also provides a meticulous and dramatic portrayal of each phase of the hanging. The awful description of the last moments of the hanging is rendered with the convicts’ chanting of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!” and the Indians who witness it, out of their shock, turn as black as coffee. Once the process is completed, the superintendent checks the body in order to verify the death.

The story employs the technique of contrast in order to show the incongruity in the image of the hanged dead body and the jolly attitude of the crowd who witnessed the hanging. While the dead body is lying on the ground, within yards’ distance, the prison inmates and jail authorities serve their breakfast and share whisky, cracking jokes and laughing aloud without any reason.

Orwell’s story portrays the plights of natives during the British colonial period. The authorities consider the hanging as their duty, a burden, once it is completed, they feel as if the ritual is performed and they celebrate it with whisky. The short story showcases the British insensitivity and disregard of natives’ lives and their emotions. Orwell’s concerns on British imperialism and their mistreatment of the native people are reflected in ‘A Hanging’ and other works. The story presents its ideas in a sarcastic tone and the contradiction involved in the story is that the narrator is part of all these procedures but he feels guilty of this inhuman act of imperialism.


  • Jail in Burma- Prisoners- iron cells like the caged birds
  • Prisoners -“condemned men”- hanged within one or two weeks
  • One person – brought out of the jail was a Hindu
  • Shaved head and vague eyes
  • Six, tall Indian warders to escort him to the gallows
  • Two of the warders remain there with rifles 
  • To be hanged by handcuffing, chaining, and tying arms
  • Treated like a living fish – may turn back to the water
  • Composed- as if nothing special was happening
  • Everything is satisfactorily prepared- the hangman is waiting  
  • Executed immediately- unless the breakfast will be delayed  
  • The unexpected entering of a dog in to the procession
  • The response of the superintendent -“Who let that bloody brute in here?”
  • The narrator observes – the healthy prisoner- taken to the gallows
  • All his body organs seem working quite brilliantly 
  • Within minutes all his perceptions- come to a sudden end
  • Meticulous description of the gallows is provided 
  • The warders bring the prisoner tightly, pushing him to the ladder
  • The hangman fixes the rope around the convict’s neck
  • The man starts chanting “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”
  • Time of hanging- each moment the man produces different sounds
  • The man is no more- people inspect the dead body
  • The superintendent says ‘he is all right’- “Well, that’s all for this morning, thank God.”
  • The breakfast is served for the prisoners
  • Prisoners sit in a row – food items are served- they appear jolly 
  • People laugh aloud without any certainty – why they laugh
  • Superintendent and Francis-hanging- conducted with “utmost satisfactoriness” 
  • They refer to an incident of hanging before- attempts failed many times
  • They remind the convict – “think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us!
  • They discuss- the man was unyielding- make troubles to others
  • Superintendent invites all – share whisky in the car 
  • All of them join- produce loud voices- enjoy the moment
  • The narration of Francis – extraordinarily funny- the dead body of the prisoner within a hundred yards’ distance.

Objective questions

  1. Which is the jail referred to in the story?
  2. How do the prisoners appear in the jail?
  3. Who are referred to as the “condemned men”?
  4. How many warders were there to accompany the prisoner? 
  5. Who is the head jailor?
  6. How does Francis appear?
  7. Why shouldn’t the hanging be delayed?
  8. Why did an unexpected halt occur to the procession? 
  9. Why did the crowd struggle to manage the dog?
  10. What was the response of the superintendent seeing the dog in the procession?
  11. What does the narrator observe of the man to be hanged? 
  12. What was the prisoner chanting when he was about to be hanged? 
  13. How was the prisoner’s chanting? 
  14. Who does say ‘chalo’ to start the hanging of the prisoner? 
  15. What does the superintendent say after inspecting the dead body of the prisoner?
  16. What do they do after completing the process of hanging? 
  17. How do the prisoners appear after the hanging?
  18. Why do they laugh and shout loudly?
  19. How do the Superintendent and Francis consider the hanging?
  20. How did they respond to the prisoner when they repeatedly failed in their attempt to hang the prisoner?
  21. Why does the superintendent invite all to his car?


  1. Jail in Burma
  2. Like the caged birds
  3. Prisoners
  4. Six
  5. Francis
  6. In white dress and gold spectacles
  7. Unless the breakfast of the prisoners will be delayed 
  8. As a dog unexpectedly enters in the procession  
  9. Due to its huge size, barking sound, and body movements
  10. “Who let that bloody brute in here?”…Catch it, someone!”
  11. He observes his brown body, strong arms, steady walk and lock of hair
  12. “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”
  13. He never appeared fearful or urgent in his expression, but he remained highly composed and rhythmic in his articulation
  14. Superintendent 
  15. ‘he is all right’
  16. They serve breakfast for the prisoners
  17. Jolly and homely
  18. Without any reason
  19. Conducted it with “utmost satisfactoriness”
  20. They remind him to “think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us!”
  21. To share his whisky

Suggested Readings

  • Malreddy, P. Kumar. “Imperialist Shame and Indigenous Guilt: George Orwell’s Writings on Burma”. European Journal of English Studies. 23(3): 311 – 325. 
  • Orwell, George. Burmese Days. Harper & Brothers,1934.


  1. Prepare a paper on Orwell’s approach towards British colonialism in his short story “A Hanging”? 
  2. Write a note on irony as a technique employed in “A Hanging”
  3. What is the central thematic concern of “A Hanging”?
  4. What is the attitude of Jail authority towards the prisoners in the story? 
  5. Detail on the character of the man to be hanged
  6. Description of hanging scene in the story
  7. How does the crowd celebrate soon after the hanging?
  8. Delineate the colonial attitude towards the natives in the story
  9. Elaborate on the thematic concerns of George Orwell
  10. Comment on the style and structure of “A Hanging”