ORWELL, WEEK 3: THE HANGING

January 21st, 2018

This week I read The Hanging, published on 1 August 1931.

Orwell begins his 1,947-word essay:

It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.

One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the moustache of a comic man on the films.

The second sentence—A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard—struck me because I couldn’t imagine yellow tinfoil and, while I recognize that Orwell was setting a mood, the image felt forced. Like the 1880 drawing Carpenter by Vincent Van Gogh included in Betty Edwards’ Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, the simile gives me insight to where Orwell begins and, knowing where he finishes, give me hope that I too can get better as a writer. In describing how the warders march the condemned (we never learn his crime) to the gallows, Orwell writes a similar, descriptive sentence: It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.

When I read that the phrase, like a fish out of water came to mind and I wonder if Orwell might have had a similar thought.

Where I think Orwell shows a hint of his genius comes when he introduces a jester, a coyote in the American Indian tradition:

Suddenly, when we had gone ten yards, the procession stopped short without any order or warning. A dreadful thing had happened–a dog, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard. It came bounding among us with a loud volley of barks, and leapt round us wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together. It was a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah. For a moment it pranced round us, and then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to lick his face. Everyone stood aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.

“Who let that bloody brute in here?” said the superintendent angrily. “Catch it, someone!”

A warder, detached from the escort, charged clumsily after the dog, but it danced and gambolled just out of his reach, taking everything as part of the game. A young Eurasian jailer picked up a handful of gravel and tried to stone the dog away, but it dodged the stones and came after us again. Its yaps echoed from the jail wails. The prisoner, in the grasp of the two warders, looked on incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging. It was several minutes before someone managed to catch the dog. Then we put my handkerchief through its collar and moved off once more, with the dog still straining and whimpering.

The dog, never named but known since he wore a collar, creates distance from the horror of what Orwell is witnessing.

Orwell gives us a tiny glimpse of the man to be hanged when he writes:

At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

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. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned–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.

One mind less, one world less.

The dog gets, what I think is, the last word:

There was a clanking noise, and then dead silence. The prisoner had vanished, and the rope was twisting on itself. I let go of the dog, and it galloped immediately to the back of the gallows; but when it got there it stopped short, barked, and then retreated into a corner of the yard, where it stood among the weeds, looking timorously out at us.

Orwell does continue, and his proper ending is important, but for me. The essay ends with the dog’s fear and condemnation.

Previously…

Coming next week: Shooting An Elephant…

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