The short story is based on the author’s first hand experiences as an imperial police officer in Burma. It has all of the trademark Orwellian touches, including the futility and the dehumanization that the imperial project entails. Moreover the story is a strong indictment of the practice of capital punishment. There are numerous clues that this is the author’s moral stance. First the dog that strays into the gallows obviously does not find the prisoner guilty. It is a mark of its love for its master and loyalty the dog jumps on the prisoner and licks his face. Here Orwell is hinting that guilt is a morally relative judgment.
Another point Orwell implies is the shared common humanity between the unfortunate prisoner and his persecutors. This insight comes through at the moment when the prisoner steps aside from a puddle of water. It was a powerful moment that revealed his capacity for rational thinking and action. The other instances of hangings narrated by Officer Francis – regarding uncooperative or rebellious prisoners – underscore the deep dehumanization that capital punishment produces. Ironically, it is not the victims who are reduced of their humanity but it is the executors. Those to-be victims who kick and scream in desperation are only showing their basic human urge to survive. On the other hand, the executing officers, who are thinking about their breakfasts even as they wrap the noose around the convicted, are decidedly less than human.
Hence, through this powerful short narrative George Orwell makes a strong case against capital punishment. His main argument is not so much the guilt or lack thereof of convicts. To the contrary his primary concern is how the whole exercise dehumanizes and makes insensitive the hearts and minds of executioners.
Orwell, George. A Hanging, Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, First Published in 1950 by Secker and Warburg, London.