"A Hanging" Circa 80

By Rodden, John | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2014 | Go to article overview

"A Hanging" Circa 80


Rodden, John, The Midwest Quarterly


Blair in Burma

MORE THAN eight decades ago, Eric Blair--a little-known, aspiring London author--published a powerful piece of short prose entitled "A Hanging." Soon he would become better-known under the pen name "George Orwell," which he used for the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London. >Blair adopted the pseudonym in order not to embarrass his family about his forthcoming Jack London-type book on sharing Depression-era poverty with the East End tramps.

"A Hanging," which appeared in the Adelplii >in August 1931, is regarded as a classic today, even if it is seldom anthologized in literature textbooks or taught in introductory rhetoric and composition courses to undergraduates. Published little more than two years after he returned from what he called "five wasted years" as a policeman in British-occupied Burma, it is based on Blair-Orwell's experience of working in the Indian Imperial Police (Orwell, CEJL, I, 4).

After graduating from Eton, Orwell chose not to go on to university but instead joined the Empires Indian police service in Burma, the first Etonian to adopt that career. Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four, while his peers back in England were attending seminars and enjoying undergraduate night life at university, Orwell was administering matters of life and death in Burma, in charge of a vast geographical district whose population was equal to a medium-sized European city (Shelden, 97). He also had an experience uncommon for literary Englishmen of his generation. He served under Burmese officials, giving him an insight into how a "provincial" region of the British Empire functioned (Shelden, 94-5).

Orwell served in Burma (now Myanmar) during 1922-1927, resigning his commission in January 1928 during his leave home. Burma proved traumatic for Orwell. Perhaps motivated by pride, he finished his posting yet came to hate his work. Presiding over a people who detested him and on behalf of an empire that he rejected, Blair became disillusioned and depressed. He realized that an Imperial police career in Asia was not for him. At some point during his service in Burma--he never specified when--Orwell recognized that he had to leave. More importantly, he came to recognize that what he wanted to do was to be a writer. Orwell had tried to deny this truth but in doing so he believed he "was outraging my true nature....(CEJL, I, 1).

Back in England, as he later wrote, all doubts about his future ended. "I was already half-determined to throw up my job, and one sniff of English air decided me" (Wigan Pier, 137-38). Orwell believed that his time in Burma had coarsened him, nearly turning him into a brute. He "was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate" (Wigan Pier, 137). When he informed his parents of his plans to leave the Imperial Police and to become a writer, they were shocked, particularly his father whose life had been spent in Imperial service.

Orwell never returned to Asia. But his first successful publications in England drew deeply on his Burmese experience. Furthermore, like Winston Churchill, who used his time in India as a soldier to educate himself by reading widely, Orwell also completed his formal education in Burma. He kept up with his reading and carefully studied the Burmese people and their ways. Unlike most Englishmen in Burma, he avoided the white man's club with its billiards, its whisky and soda, its false bonhomie, its expat hauteur, and its ersatz upper-class tone and arrogant contempt for Asians, a milieu that he later would savage in his satirical novel, Burmese Days (1934).

Narrative Structure and Literary Strategy

"A Hanging" tells the story of the execution of an unidentified Indian man. We learn neither his name nor anything about his background. Nor do we know his crime. He is an Everyman, described only as "a brown, sullen, puny wisp of a man with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. …

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