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Literature / The Hangman

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"The Hangman" is a moderately long allegorical poem by Maurice Ogden, concerning an ordinary town to which comes the Hangman. He raises a scaffold, tells everyone that he is here to hang the one who "serves him most faithfully", before beginning to hang people, one by one, day by day, until only the narrator remains.

"The Hangman" provides examples of:

  • Allegory: The entire poem is one to Nazi Germany and its atrocities, and finds its parallel in Niemoller's poem "First They Came...". In a broader sense, it also serves as an allegory for situations that could have been stopped earlier if people didn't just sit by and wait.
  • Animated Adaptation: The poem was adapted into a short film in 1964 by Les Goldman and Paul Julian, which can be seen here.
  • Asshole Victim: The narrator, and possibly the last few people hanged before him, are slain by The Hangman for abetting him through their inaction. Some of the judgmental words ("usurer," "infidel," "alien") in the narrator's wording suggest he was even somewhat supportive of some of the Hangman's earlier victims getting strung up.
  • Bait-and-Switch: In the last stanza, the narrator assumes the Hangman is calling him to dismantle the gallows. He's wrong.
  • Bystander Syndrome: A harsh critique of this behavior and its consequences.
  • Dirty Coward: Everyone who is not hanged right away, but especially the narrator.
  • The Dreaded: The titular Hangman inspires terror in the townspeople.
  • Exact Words: A variant, in that the Hangman's words are quite clear, but not understood.
    "The one who serves most faithfully shall earn the rope on the gallows tree."
  • Faux Affably Evil: Whenever the people ask if The Hangman's latest victim is "He who served [him] best," desperately hoping his reign of terror is at its end, The Hangman coyly states that they were just test subjects to make sure parts of his gallows tree were in working order. They give up asking after the sixth victim and idly wait as he picks them off one by one.
  • Hypocrite: The Hangman snidely tells the narrator that he "did no more than you let me do," despite the fact that his second victim was a man who called out The Hangman's butchery for what it was. Although he could be referring that nobody backed the victim up and were willing to let him be silenced just so they weren't the ones being hanged.
  • Morton's Fork: The Hangman chastises the narrator for his cowardice and inaction, implying he would have been able to stop him. All while conveniently ignoring the fact that his second victim was a man who called him a murderer to his face.
  • The Nameless: Principally the narrator and the Hangman, no names are given in the poem.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: When The Hangman glibly admits that he only hanged his first victim to break in his new rope, a man in the crowd calls him a murderer. The Hangman kills him next while everyone else does nothing.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The second-last stanza is this, as the Hangman denounces the moral cowardice of the narrator.
    Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye. "Lied to you? Tricked you?" he said. "Not I.
    For I answered straight and I told you true: the scaffold was raised for none but you.
    For who has served more faithfully than you with your coward's hope?" said he.
    "And where are the others that might have stood side by side in the common good?"
    "Dead," I whispered; and amiably, "Murdered," the Hangman corrected me.
    "First the alien, then the Jew...I did no more than you let me do."
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: The narrator's ultimate fate is to swing on the gallows for aiding and abetting The Hangman.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • When The Hangman calls the narrator over to the gallows, the narrator assumes it's to help take it down since everyone else is dead. He never even considers the possibility that he'll be hanged until he's caught in a trap.
    • The other townsfolk in general, for letting The Hangman kill several people he freely admitted were innocent, and assuming that he'd stop before killing them.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: The Hangman hangs the narrator last precisely because he "helped" him through his inaction.