The Literature of Capital Punishment

By Phillips, Tom | Contemporary Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview

The Literature of Capital Punishment


Phillips, Tom, Contemporary Review


While he was working for the left-wing newspaper, Tribune, in the 1940s, George Orwell had the immense good fortune of being permitted to write a regular column about anything which took his fancy. In his characteristically no-nonsense style, he commented on current affairs, discussed publishing, journalism and propaganda, and described apparently insignificant events - an encounter with an American GI in a shop, doing the washing-up - which shed light on the quality of ordinary life in wartime Britain. Even now, more than fifty years later, leafing through any random selection from As I Please, will turn up all manner of unexpected ideas, some fully realised, others merely sketched. In fact, that's how I discovered that there was such a thing as the literature of capital punishment.

In a column written in November 1944, Orwell remarks that he's been rereading Anatole France's novel of the French Revolution, Les Dieux Ont Soif and that the description of Gamelin's decapitation has made him realist just how many pieces of writing there are which describe executions. Numerous writers - he lists, as a sample, Thackeray, Flaubert, Dickens, Byron, Walpole, Bennett, London, Plato - have produced peculiarly effective and affecting descriptions of criminals on their way to the scaffold, the guillotine or the block. Few, if any, write about capital punishment with approval. Had he not been too modest to do so, Orwell would have been more than justified in adding his own name to his list. The crystal humanity of the moment in his 1931 essay, A Hanging, when he describes how a condemned Burmese prisoner steps round a puddle and his own sudden awareness of 'the unspeakable wrongness of cutting a life short when it is in full tide' must surely be enough to make it a classic of the literature of capital punishment.

Orwell, of course, was thinking mainly of fiction and reportage, of writing describing the actual business of execution. However, if his category is expanded, it rapidly becomes apparent that capital punishment has generated a vast and varied literature. In addition to fictional accounts of execution and the descriptions set down by witnesses in journals, letters, essays and articles, it includes the ballads and broadsides which recount the crimes, trials and executions of felons both notorious and obscure; the letters, journals and petitions of the condemned; the essays, books and pamphlets which debate the ethics of capital punishment; the reports and statements of judges, politicians and Royal Commissions; the historical and sociological studies of crime and punishment; the 'true crime' pulp non-fiction of recent years.

Much of this material, of course, is recognisably literary. Orwell's list might be extended with names like Pepys, Gibbon, Boswell, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus and Genet. The condemned cell and the execution block are the settings for some of Shakespeare's most powerful scenes. The encounter in Measure for Measure between Isabella and her brother Claudio as the latter waits to be executed has always struck me as being one of his finest explorations of our contradictory feelings about death. Likewise, many leading thinkers and writers have contributed to the ethical debate about capital punishment. Samuel Johnson weighed in against the severity of the eighteenth century 'Bloody Code' with a finely-tuned essay in his Rambler series. Shelley's Essay on the Punishment of Death is, like much of his political prose, an eloquent expression of disgust at despotism and violence while An Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte, which turns the hanging and quartering of three working men into the execution of Liberty itself, is as barbed and satirical as anything he wrote. Wordsworth, on the other hand, defended capital punishment in his rather pompous and convoluted sequence, Sonnets on the Punishment of Death, written in 183940, in response, perhaps, to the growing abolitionist movement of that time. …

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