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Analysis of Orwell’s Argument against Capital Punishment | March 22, 2010

George Orwell argues that Capital Punishment is wrong with a very weak argument using a narrative in “A Hanging”. “The Hanging” is a narrative of exactly that; a hanging. Orwell delicately words this piece so that you feel and experience what Orwell was experiencing. He does this by being very descriptive with tone and mood but not with actual details. He has a meager amount of details, all aimed toward showing how capital punishment is wrong. This piece of literature has many fallacies and has a stylized argument meant to persuade. He does so by only focusing on the negative, by creating a mood that is very depressing, and creating character profiles modeling certain characters to seem either really bad or heartless, or really innocent. He also has very specific word choice that makes the reader feel a certain way toward one thing or another. The lack of detail but the descriptive words make it so the reader still thinks what Orwell intends for the reader to think while not attacking directly anything.

     An argument is composed of four parts: The subject, claims, evidence, and assumptions. Orwell presents all of these things; but he does so not as clearly as to say it is an argument. He argues his claim that capital punishment is wrong by presenting it as a narrative, not as an argumentative paper. This makes it harder to see his argument and to analyze it as an argument, which seems to be what Orwell intended it to be, subtle. He makes the argument subtle, and that is the style of writing he has; the subtle use of words for description is what carries his narrative, not evidence. The subject isn’t the prisoner, but the hanging, just as the title suggests. The claim, as it wasn’t a directly argumentative paper, was hard to find. But it was in paragraph eight; it was the epiphany that Orwell had that illustrated his claim best; saying “I saw.. the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short…” The evidence was few. The only real evidence was in the fact that it was a narrative. This first-hand experience creates a credibility that could be considered evidence. The whole argument is evidence in itself because it is a narrative. The assumption is that killing a human life is wrong under any circumstances. Orwell has presented this in a unique way and has achieved a valid argument. Although He has created a valid argument, there are many things that are not good in his argument; such as lack of hard evidence and a very emotionally charged narrative that uses a very biased word choice.

     The word choice was excellent in terms of persuasion, and Orwell chose his very carefully. But they were very biased and led to unwarranted assumptions for the reader. They weren’t real facts, but very strong words for his argument; all descriptive. One example is how Orwell described the setting, “a sodden morning… sickly light, like yellow tinfoil.” If this were a justified hanging, the tone would not be so gloomy, and Orwell sets it very gloomy. This has nothing to do with the argument, making it a red herring. The morning’s mood has no relation to the hanging, but Orwell describes it for the emotion it brings; the sadness it portrays which adds to the emotional appeal for the argument. He goes on to show the conditions of the cells, how small they were and with meager furnishings. This has nothing to do with the claim that capital punishment is wrong but Orwell sets the stage using the scene to make the hanging a very sad day. Also, when describing the prisoners, they were called “condemned men”. This word “condemned” is a suitable substitute for “guilty”. Although the two words can be interchangeable, Orwell uses condemned because it has a gloomier tone which edges toward being their fates are sealed, but it if they deserved the punishment, it leaves to question. Which can imply they are not guilty; also, condemned seems to have a harsher tone, almost as if undeserving. Guilty would be a word that would make punishment morally justified.

     The contrast of descriptions of the prisoners to the prisoner workers also contrasts a tone that makes more of an appeal Orwell’s view. He views the Superintendent as an almost uncaring person. He just wants to get it over with, and he has a harsh character, being unsympathetic to the prisoners, and later, to the dog. To describe the Superintendent, Orwell says he has “a gruff voice… He said irritably. “The man ought to be dead by this time.”” Also, with the warders, he described their actions as very clumsy. And the warders just followed orders, and did what the Superintendent told them to do. They were described as big men, tall men, “Six tall Indian men were guarding him…” while the prisoners were small men. Orwell describes the prisoners as “brown, silent men”. And then “He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man… shaven head…. vague liquid eyes.” Orwell likens the prisoner about to be hanged to a comic man, “rather like…a comic man on the films.” This implies innocence, that a funny, light-hearted character Orwell likened him to, couldn’t have done anything so wrong. This makes him seem so much more innocent without any evidence at all. The contrast also to the tall guards to the small prisoners makes it seem all the more unlikely that they could commit crimes.

     The prisoner to be hanged, Orwell never chooses words that would hint to guilty. If he were to, then it would bring in the reader’s moral judgment; but to Orwell, that is of no consequence, so he avoids giving us the power of moral judgment. He constructs his narrative to be free of that, and to direct us in the path that argues only that taking a life is wrong, no matter what the crime. In order to do this, he needs to use more descriptions than facts. That is the style that he writes in but gives the reader non-relevant descriptions of things and uses red-herrings and non-sequitur. Such is that in the description of the prisoner to be hanged. First, he describes him as “a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man…”, and then “rather like… a comic man on the films.” These two descriptions give the prisoner more of a likable personality without any actual facts to who he is. This plays into his strategy of making you feel for the character and then leading to his death which makes you feel for him more. But this has nothing to do with the validity of his claim, “Capital punishment is wrong”; this is a red herring.

     The incident of the dog; It provided a break in action, something that momentarily forgets the hanging, for a seemingly small event. This provides the Orwell with a meaningful scene. “It had made a dash, for the prisoner… trying to lick its face.” Of course, Orwell goes on having the prison guards “charge clumsily after the dog” and the Superintendent bark orders to catch it, adding to his already rough personality. But this break was another attempt to show a moral argument. The dog, indifferent and unbiased, gave a pure judgment and went to the prisoner, and tried to be nice, by licking the prisoner’s face. This shows that even a dog can see that a life is a life. And to go further, it can be assumed, since a life is a life, it shouldn’t be taken away. This is an example of non-sequitur, just because a dog can see you as friendly, doesn’t mean the prisoner is not guilty.

     Orwell never mentions the crime. He does this with the exact purpose to take any moral judgment away from the reader. This is his goal seeing that moral judgment means nothing toward his claim; and this only complicates his claim. But this leaves the reader to a disadvantage. The reader cannot make a pure judgment on his claim because the facts are missing. This skews the reader’s decision; which was Orwell’s goal. If the crime was very serious, such as a mass homicide, or if it were as small as stealing a piece of fruit; to Orwell, it does not matter. Because, under any circumstances, it is wrong to murder, and for the reader to understand that, the crimes do not matter. So Orwell chooses to not mention the crime because it is second nature to make a moral judgment when we do know the extent of the crime. So Orwell means to take the facts out of the story. This still, leaves the reader to naturally think what Orwell wants the reader to think, making it more difficult for the reader to make their own judgment.

     Orwell’s lack of facts and his use of description pollute any real judgment reading this narrative. He presents his argument very carefully and words it even more carefully. The whole story is written very well, and has great power to influence against capital punishment. But it is too biased with the use of description. The use of red herrings and non-sequitur are everywhere. The only solid paragraph is in his claim, paragraph 8. To a small degree, Orwell has an appeal to the readers’ pity; for the “condemned” prisoners. Orwell writes beautifully but subtly uses very strong words meant to persuade. How he presented it isn’t right. He has no real facts to support his claim, but he builds his characters very well.

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11 Comments »

  1. this has been a very open minded analysis of the essay.. Thank you for posting your comments on it.. it’ll help a lot with my oral commentary

    Comment by manxo — July 13, 2011 @ 1:40 AM

  2. whoso ever you are thank you very much for such a wonderful analysis. u made my mind open and clear about the essay. you have described it very nicely and hats off to you for that. thanks again

    Comment by piyush — April 9, 2012 @ 10:29 PM

  3. Thank you for writing this essay. It has really helped me view it in a new light. Much appreciated.

    Comment by yolo — April 30, 2012 @ 9:21 AM

  4. Thanks, helped a lot with my english prep

    Comment by mckamp — November 17, 2012 @ 8:29 PM

  5. Great analysis. This should help with my english oral commentary. Thanks

    Comment by Alex — December 4, 2012 @ 7:08 AM

  6. Yours is ertainly a nice and strong response to Orwell’s writing “The hanging”. It helped me a lot in understanding the text. But at some point I feel, Orwell’s argument was quite strong. His use of phrases like “I saw…” and “He and we were…” does show that he is an eye witness of the execution. Though it’s not clear enough when this execution took place, he does mention the place and as far as I have read, he was there in police services as a magistrate. So I think it is quite strong and it is obviously a nonfictional text.

    Comment by Nivedita Negi — March 10, 2013 @ 7:33 PM

  7. Orwell actually does pretty well. I disagree with what he is arguing but he uses Rhetorical tools of Pathos and Ethos very well. Especially Pathos. He does not want to preach to people through giving a clear argument, in fact to do that would be bad rhetoric. He does it through persuading people through their emotion. He places them in the story and gives such details so they can feel what he feels. His goal in writing this is to persuade people against capital punishment by making them see how inhuman and immoral it is. That is how he use Ethos. He appeals to our morals saying that we should think it wrong and immoral to kill a man for his crimes. He is saying the man is still a man just like anyone of us and thus should not die. Orwell argues very well again capital punishment using the Rhetorical tools of Pathos and Ethos.

    Comment by Theodore Arnold — September 14, 2013 @ 7:19 AM

  8. While your piece was good and opened a new perspective to Orwell’s “A Hanging” I strongly disagree with your argument that Orwell’s argument on capitol punishment was weak. You say his piece was a narrative and not a argumentative paper, yet don’t actions speak louder than words? Orwell is “showing us” instead of “telling”, and though because of this his piece lacks statistics and other details the essay has a great deal of human emotion and empathy attached to it. Drawing out this emotional response from the reader is perhaps an even greater accomplishment in Orwell’s argument.

    Comment by naomirose96 — September 16, 2013 @ 1:51 AM

  9. You’re clearly an advocate of capital punishment. It aggravates me to see such a close minded analysis of such a great short story

    Comment by Lucas — November 13, 2013 @ 5:15 AM

    • I am actually not an advocate of capital punishment. That went away for me when Jesus argued in favor of turning the other cheek in lieu of “an eye for an eye.” For this, I just did not like how Orwell argued, that is all. I can agree with the argument at its coe but not agree with how it was brought about. The ends never justified the means.

      Comment by isomd — November 13, 2013 @ 9:28 AM

  10. I too have found that being critical when evaluating people’s argument when dealing with such difficult topics (I taught a university course on the death penalty for many years) brought intense reactions. People assumed I agreed with their views, and therefore they did not have to make internally consistent arguments backed by appropriate evidence. Bad arguments however, as Lucas recognises, does a case no favours. Take an opponent seriously, and don’t assume because you consider yourself ‘right’ that you don’t have to make the effort to do a good job.

    Comment by Steve Mills — September 26, 2014 @ 9:25 PM


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