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.

Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” and the “picture-making mechanism” phrase

Author: Shane Lambert

Willa Cather published “Paul’s Case” in 1905 as part of a small collection of stories known as The Troll Garden (pictured below). One phrase that students often have trouble with when reading this short story occurs within the following quotation:

“(Paul) felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things” (emphasis added).

The cover of Willa Cather’s book, where Paul’s Case originally appeared. I found this in the June 11th, 1905 edition of The Nebraska State Journal (page 8).

The phrase that students often trouble with is the one in italics. Cather isn’t talking about an early camera or anything of that sort. She appears to be talking about a faculty of Paul’s brain — but not necessarily the entire brain itself.

Willa Cather. A public domain photo.

In this paragraph Paul’s death at his own hands is depicted. He has stepped in front of a train, it struck him in the chest, and that’s why he was “thrown swiftly through the air.” It’s clear that in Cather’s imagination, dying from the impact of a train might leave you alive for a few short moments before the catastrophic and massive injuries of the impact killed you. The “picture-making mechanism” being “crushed” can best be understood as brain damage that, in Paul’s case, was nearly immediately terminal.

Some might say that “the picture-making mechanism” is actually a metaphor for Paul’s brain, however, I wouldn’t state that. The brain itself is a complex organ and it is known to have divisions that have differing responsibilities. So “the picture-making mechanism” is likely just describing the part of the brain where the sensory-data input from the eyes is processed or where we see dreams when our eyes are closed.

How did Cather know of this part of the brain? In short, she probably didn’t know about it in a specific way (ie. she probably couldn’t literally point to the part of the brain with “the picture-making mechanism” during an autopsy). Maybe she just suspected or even deduced that this part of the brain existed. If you think about, how could it not?

Noam Chomsky’s most famous linguistics book is called Syntactic Structures. Photo by Hans Peters/Anefo, who donated it to the public domain.

To get what I’m talking about, let’s visit a theory in the field of linguistics. Noam Chomsky, a linguist who taught at MIT for many years, uses the term Language Acquisition Device to describe a part of the brain that he thinks is responsible for humans learning how to speak a language. He’s not using the phrase “Language Acquisition Device” metaphorically — it’s just the name he assigns to the part of the brain that he thinks exists through abstract theory and logic.

If we acquire language, then we must have a native ability to do so. The part of the brain that enables us to do this is what Chomsky calls the Language Acquisition Device.

The phrase “Language Acquisition Device” and “picture-making mechanism” actually remind me of one another. I don’t see either phrase as metaphorical but rather I see them as reflecting a certain amount of infancy when it comes to understanding the compartments of the brain: the names are simplistic. We can figure out what goes on in our brain on a certain level but the organ remains mysterious in so many ways.

Perhaps the phrase “mechanism” could make the entire phrase into a metaphor. Mechanisms, when used literally, are more commonly associated with machines. Analogies between humans and machines in terms of how we function have been made for generations. Thus, you could argue that Cather is presenting Paul as a machine in her statement, metaphorically speaking.

However, I don’t actually see it as a metaphor anymore than the word “device” is from Chomsky’s usage. I think “picture-making mechanism” is just a primitive description for a part of the brain that really wasn’t understood in 1905, when Cather’s story was published. Nearly all aspects of the paragraph in question could be read literally, even the very last statement about “the immense design of things” which I will get into at another time. In conclusion, re-read the paragraph but take everything literally except for maybe the word “immeasurably.” When you read “picture-making mechanism” understand it to be a phrase that literally is part of Paul’s brain, not metaphorically.

“He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture-making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things”

A portrait of Willa Cather. Taken from the April 16th, 1905 Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette. Page 20.