George Orwell’s “A Hanging”: Short Story or Essay?

Author: Shane Lambert

George Orwell. Eric Arthur Blair was his pen name.

George Orwell is my favorite writer. When I went to England, I made a point to go up to Oxford and then over to Sutton Courtenay to visit his grave. This involved taking a very long walk because, although it was several years ago now, I remember getting off at the wrong station.

I have friends that are fans of Orwell’s as well and I’ve used the fact, quite fallaciously, that I have visited his grave to ‘prove’ that I’m a superior fan. The truth is, going to a writer’s grave doesn’t really make you an expert on the writer’s works. There are some major works of Orwell’s that I’ve never read, at least not in full. However, I have no problems using false logic to ‘win’ an argument, so long as the venue is just a bar.

I’ll try to be more reasonable here.

One debate about Orwell that I remember from my university days has to do with his publication, “A Hanging.” We read it in English 101 and noted that it had been designated as an essay. This is despite the fact that it seems a lot like a short story.

The publication starts with a setting and it does so immediately. The first sentence of “A Hanging” is “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains.” We soon learn that we have a first-person narrator and that he is working in a prison or camp. Essays don’t have a setting in a proper way nor do they have narrators while short stories do.

“A Hanging,” unlike essays, also has characters. In this case, an important character is a prisoner who is about to be killed.

Orwell is a character too as he’s writing in the first person and this appears to be written from memory, something you’re allowed to do in fiction but not really allowed to do when writing an essay where you have a burden of proof. This is an important point of contention for those that consider this work an essay.

If “A Hanging” was an essay then every fact stated would have to be provable to the finger-waggers. Those standards are a part of scholarly works — but they are not a part of fiction. What that means is that Orwell’s memory of the events that he used to make his point in “A Hanging” could be called into question. As a writer that has written from first-person experience, I can tell you authors don’t have such amazing memories as to be able to represent their lives in detail when describing historical events.

Also, fiction writers are afforded something called “Artistic License.” When writing fiction from personal experience, there is no pressure to be 100% accurate. Works of fiction often say “Based on a true story” but that’s not the same as claiming that everything is true. In an essay, the standards are higher.

Another character is “Francis, the head jailer,” a superintendent, a playful dog, and others that are mentioned. If you were to turn this story into a film then you’d likely need 10 to 15 actors.

The plot of the story has something to do with the title. A man is about to be killed, he is lead to the gallows, and then those that killed him go on with their day.

The conflict in the story has to do with a crisis of conscience, one that Orwell clearly has as reflected in the often-quoted paragraph below. After the prisoner sidesteps a puddle on the way to his death, Orwell noted:

“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…..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. “

Did Jack The Ripper’s name appear in a short story from 1894?

The other characters in the story have consciences too. The superintendent of the jail makes the following remark regarding the hanging: “Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.” In this statement, he, the superintendent, orders that the hanging be completed in a timely manner. The way he frames hanging a man as a philanthropic act so that the living prisoners can be fed is interesting. It reflects guilt management.

One can also manage guilt with the bottle. Toward the end of the short story, everyone takes to drink even though it would only be shortly after 8AM. That’s an odd time to be drinking so perhaps we’re supposed to infer that an eye opener is needed to help you deal with committing an early-morning murder.

For theme, I would submit that the short story’s is morality. However, this shouldn’t be confused with a thesis. That the short story is on the didactic side doesn’t make it an essay. Orwell was a didactic writer and even some of his longer works of fiction, his famous novels, could be described that way.

Orwell’s point in “A Hanging” is that people shouldn’t be killed but in an essay you explicitly argue, not implicitly coax. In implying his point, Orwell has represented people that are negatively affected by the killing of another. However, there is no way to falsify these memories and that’s important to note. In order for something to be scholarly, an essay has to be falsifiable. You can’t really do that with fiction writing where the author can represent people however he wants and that’s what Orwell has done with “A Hanging.”

The moral instruction in the story is only implied at times but it is more strongly stated in the often-quoted paragraph. If you want to spin that into being “an argument” then you would have to be a little bit fanciful.

You could say that the ‘thesis’ is “Don’t kill people or you will feel bad and drink” but then so many points like this can be pulled out from the world of literature. If you allow yourself to designate “A Hanging” as an essay then any short story or even novel that is didactic in nature could be framed as such. Make sure you’re being consistent.