“A Hanging”: Literary Analysis on Symbolism and the Moral Question

In the short story A Hanging by George Orwell, the process of a prisoner’s hanging is described through the perspective of the narrator, a guard who is involved in the execution. It depicts the happenings of the event from the prisoner’s walk towards the gallows to the guards’ actions after the hanging. During the process, three particular episodes arise that create a clear tension among the characters within the story. These episodes act as major turning points in the psychological states of the guards, creating a transition from the initial perception of the execution as a norm to the development of a feeling of unease towards the event. Overall, this piece vividly draws upon the readers’ sense of judgement in considering the moral implications that the guards in the story face as well as those that come along with capital punishment as a whole.

The story begins with an image of the jail, where the prisoners live in “condemned cells, with row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages.” As the prisoner due for the hanging is brought out, the guards keep close to him the whole time, as if “handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.” At this point, the prisoners are depicted as mere animals, as the “other” in comparison to the guards. One can see how their executions can easily be justified through this mindset because the death of an individual who is less than human would not be regarded as murder; the guards may also use this thought to carry out their jobs. Their labeling of the man as a “criminal” also creates a distinction that allows them to more easily partake in the hanging.

This distinction, however, gets challenged as they begin to head towards the gallows—with the entrance of the dog as the first turning point. Halfway through their walk, a stray dog runs into the yard and heads for the prisoner, “jumping up [and trying] to lick his face.” This changes the mood of the scene in a drastic way because the entrance of the dog introduces an element of innocence and objectivity into the story; unlike the guards, the dog is oblivious to both the nature of the procession and the subordinate position the prisoner is in. To the dog, they were merely another group of men, with no difference in their standing or levels of authority. The notion of equality, represented by the dog’s treatment of the prisoner, undermines the guards’ justification for the hanging. This is immensely disturbing to the guards, and they respond with urgent attempts to eject the dog from the area.  On the other hand, the dog influences the prisoner, providing a final reminder of what life can be for him. After spending his time in jail alone, this would most likely be his first instance of contact with a non-authority figure. The way the prisoner personally perceives the event is not directly revealed, but he may have two possible reactions: It may allow him to feel more at ease about the inevitability of the execution, in the sense that he is given a final gesture of care from another being. At the same time, however, this may make the notion of death even harder for him, as it shows him something that he will never be able to experience again.

As they continued on their walk, tension was once again created by the prisoner’s seemingly ordinary action: “[when] in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, [the prisoner] stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.” Despite his imminent death, the prisoner’s maintains his pride, to the great discomfort for the guards; even though it should not matter whether he steps into the puddle, as his life has lost most of its meaning, the prisoner chooses to avoid getting himself dirty by steering from the puddle. This action also confirms his state of humanity, not as an animal but as a self-conscious human being, an equal to any other person.  When the narrator witnesses this happening, “[he sees] 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 [the guards] were alive”. This leads to the full realization of how, through their actions, the guards would essentially be taking away the life of another individual just like themselves, capable of thinking and in possession of the basic value of dignity.

The final episode is when the prisoner “began [to cry out] to his god…not urgent and fearful like a prayer or a cry for help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell” as the noose is put around his neck. The introduction of a religion presents God as a divine authority figure who is all-powerful and greatly supersedes the guards in superiority. This affects the guards, as the sight of a man so proudly crying for his god creates the doubt that the prisoner may not be deserving of his punishment; the possibility of the execution being a mistake affects them and results in their feeling of great unease. Religion, in this case, represents a sanctity that cannot be reached or doubted by secular actors. The possibility of the guards wrongly executing the prisoner emphasizes how a potential mistake could go against the will of the gods and lead to the murder of an innocent individual, once again bringing the question of morality and to the table. The guards understand this and as “[they] looked at the lashed, hooded man on the drop, and listened to his cries…[thinking]: oh, kill him quickly”.

The questions of morality and whether the actions of the prison guards should be considered a form of murder are brought up as a central theme within the story. Often, capital punishment is justified with the absence of a single actor. As there is no way to hold the state, as a unit, responsible for executions, there is less of a moral question to the issue. This system creates an inexplicable power structure that makes it impossible to find fault or blame upon any specific actor. It would be irrational to put the responsibility of the prisoners’ deaths into the hands of the guards, who are merely abiding by the instructions given to them. At the same time, it would be inappropriate to exclusively find guilt upon the head of states as they did not physically carry out the executions of the prisoners. The grey area present within the moral implications of capital punishment lead to the tension and reaction of the guards towards the hanging.

Though such idea is not directly conveyed, one can infer that the attempt of the guards to act nonchalantly about the hanging emphasizes their guilt for the hanging, something that they do as a part of their everyday lives. In the beginning of the story, the hanging was hurried by the superintendent of the jail, as he chastised his underlings for their delay: “the [prisoner] ought to have been dead by this time. Aren’t you ready yet?” The executions have developed into a routine-like procedure for the guards, into a job. However, the question remains whether the guards truly believe that their act of executing the prisoners is right.

At the end of the story, after the execution, readers can see how the guards treated the hanging like a regular part of their lives, as “everyone began chattering gaily”. They began drinking together and laughing as they talked. What was peculiar about this event was the fact that though “several people laughed[,]  at what, nobody seemed certain”. Such action can be interpreted as an attempt to hide the true discomfort and guilt they feel about hanging. The ending the story, once again reinforcing how “the dead man was a hundred yards away” implies that this is something that this is something that the guards recognize, even as they move on with their everyday activities.  One may feel sympathy towards the guards, who have had to adopt the persecutions as a norm in their lives; their sign of true discomfort shows through their forced attempt to carry out their day, especially with the need to act as though the hangings have no weight upon their lives. The psychological effects of their responsibility further underscores the consequences of capital punishment, depicted from the perspective of the guard. This shows the prominence that the intrinsic human nature of morality plays upon everyone’s life.

In conclusion, A Hanging by George Orwell vividly depicts the moral consequences behind capital punishment and the idea of jurisdictional authority of man over man; despite the ambiguity regarding such killings, Orwell effectively conveys the effects and implications that these executions still hold.