In a single paragraph within this beautifully paced story/essay, Orwell skewers the argument for capital punishment, and in broader terms mounts an oblique critique of colonialism. It is the uncannily eloquent yet baleful narrative of a man forced to supervise a hanging. The subject matter is grim but the effect is oddly life-affirming with its revelation of why human life is so precious. A local man walks barefoot on the way to the gallows for an unspecified offence. Confronted with a puddle, instinctively he steps around it. In this civilising impulse, Orwell detects the profoundly human spark that should never (willingly) be extinguished. I’d swap Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm for these few pages, which remind us what being alive really means.
First published in August 1931 in The Adelphi. Collected in Essays, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000. Read the story online here