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What is the main idea of George Orwell's essay "A Hanging"?

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"A Hanging" represents a savage indictment of what Orwell sees as the barbarism of capital punishment. But more specifically, Orwell wishes to make it clear from the outset that the death penalty doesn't simply damage those convicted of capital crimes, but also morally corrupts those responsible for the administration of justice, those forced to witness such unspeakable horrors. This message is effectively conveyed by the purposely dark, brooding atmosphere of the story, which casts a gloomy pall over proceedings. Capital punishment, and all that it entails, is everyone's burden.

The narrator is a colonial policeman. This brings a significant element of autobiography to the story. Orwell worked as a British colonial policeman in Burma, and was often deeply disturbed by what he saw, especially in relation to the unfair treatment of the indigenous population. Although the narrator of the story is somewhat apart from what's happening, his evident revulsion at what unfolds before his eyes indicates that the execution has a profound effect upon him. Crucially, however, it's not just the narrator who's adversely affected by what he sees:

Everyone had changed colour. The Indians had gone grey like bad coffee, and one or two of the bayonets were wavering. We looked at the lashed, hooded man on the drop, and listened to his cries — each cry another second of life; the same thought was in all our minds: oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable noise!

But revulsion soon gives way to relief, and—appropriately enough—gallows humor:

We went through the big double gates of the prison, into the road. ‘Pulling at his legs!’ exclaimed a Burmese magistrate suddenly, and burst into a loud chuckling. We all began laughing again. At that moment Francis's anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny. We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.

The only way that the men can deal with what they've just witnessed is through trying to laugh it all off and getting drunk. Although they can put some physical distance between themselves and the executed man, they cannot truly escape the horror of what they have seen. Their souls have been corrupted, and no amount of hard-drinking camaraderie is going to change that simple fact one iota.

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