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How does it feel to serve an imperial power when you hate imperialism? What did English colonialism do to the minds of the English themselves? George Orwell's (1903–50) brief but breathless and brutal essay, "Shooting an Elephant" (1936), asks just these questions. Orwell – the most famous anti-imperial and anti-totalitarian writer of the twentieth century – served as a young military officer in Burma (named Myanmar today) in the role of an English imperialist. Reflecting on his time in Burma, "Shooting an Elephant" recounts an incident that becomes a metaphor for the relationship that colonial powers have with the exploited and oppressed peoples of colonized nations.
Eric Blair (George Orwell is his chosen pen name) was born in 1903 to a family steeped in the British military and colonial operations. His grandfather, Charles Blair, owned Jamaican plantations, and his father, Richard Walmesley Blair, served as a sub-deputy in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service.1 A military career in the British colonial empire was almost Orwell's birthright. In the 1920s, upon his father's suggestion, Orwell joined the British military in the Indian Imperial Police, which would provide decent pay and an opportunity for retirement after 20 years of service.
Orwell chose to serve in the city of Moulmein, Burma, to be close to his maternal grandmother, Thérèse Limouzin. There, Orwell faced much hostility from the local people who were tired of the occupation by the British Raj. Orwell found himself caught between disdain for the local Burmese and a more embittered hatred of the British Imperial project that he was serving. His early essays "A Hanging" (1931) and "Shooting an Elephant," as well as his first novel, Burmese Days (1934), came out of this time in his life and the emotional turmoil he experienced in this position.
The name of the British Imperial rule of the Southern Asian subcontinent (including India and Burma) was the British Raj. Raj is the Hindi word for "rule" or "kingdom," and the British Raj describes the British Imperial state in the region from 1858 to 1947.
"Shooting an Elephant" recounts an incident that happened while Orwell was fed up with being an Imperial police officer, as he was caught between his hatred of British Imperialism and the Buddhist monks who caused the officers trouble:
With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism.
Orwell notes that the "sub-inspector at a police station" called him on the phone one morning with a notice that "an elephant was ravaging the bazaar" and a request for the young Orwell to come and do something about it. The elephant was in a state of must: "it had already destroyed somebody's bamboo hut, killed a cow," "raided some fruit-stalls," "devoured the stock," and destroyed a van.
Must: An elephant's state of must (or musth) is similar to "rut" in deer. It is a period of heightened aggressive behavior, even among very calm elephants, caused by a surge of hormones.
As Orwell followed the clues, he realized that a man had been stepped on by the elephant and "ground . . . into the earth." Upon seeing the body, Orwell sent for an elephant rifle and was told that the elephant was nearby. Many local Burmese, "an ever-growing army of people," rushed out of their homes and followed the officer to the elephant.
Even as he had decided not to shoot the elephant, he was "irresistibly" pressed forward by "their two thousand wills." Since the Burmese had no weapons under British rule and no real infrastructure to deal with such a situation, Orwell seemed to take on a leading role in the situation. However, he was "only an absurd puppet" motivated by an urge not to appear foolish in front of the natives.
Orwell notes that no winner would come out of the situation. His only options were to protect the elephant and look weak to the locals or to shoot the elephant and destroy a poor Burmese person's valuable property. Orwell opted for the latter choice, but in doing so, he saw clearly into the mind of the imperialist.
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy . . . For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life trying to impress the 'natives' . . . He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.
The elephant stood in a field, eating grass, finished with his attack of must, but Orwell chose to shoot him anyway in order to protect his image. What follows is a gruesome description of the elephant being shot but unable to die.
. . . a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant . . . He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old . . . An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old.
Finally, after the elephant fell over but was still breathing, Orwell continued to shoot him, trying to end his suffering but only adding to it. Eventually, the young officer left the animal alive in the grass, and it took half an hour for the elephant to finally die.
Orwell writes his essay from the perspective of a writer looking back on an earlier experience, placing it into its larger historical and political context, and, in this case, attempting to identify the true meaning of the English occupation of India and Burma.
The major themes are clear: colonialism, imperialism, and the role of the police in maintaining dominance. However, the deeper and more meaningful aspects of Orwell's essay focus on how colonialism and imperialism create paradoxes for those serving the imperial power.
Paradox: a statement that apparently contradicts itself logically, emotionally, and conceptually.
Many academic fields have different definitions of paradox. In literature, a paradox is something that is stated in contradictory terms, though it may very well be true, such as:
Orwell's essay highlights the paradoxes that arise in the imperial context. Specifically, that colonialism is often regarded as an expression of the individuality and free will of the colonizer. Orwell's narrator, however, realizes that his position as the colonizer doesn't make him free – it just makes him the puppet of powers that are not his own.
His position as a colonizer doesn't make him appear as a conqueror but as a terrified pawn in uniform willing to inflict large amounts of violence on the world to avoid appearing foolish in the eyes of the colonized peoples. However, the more he tries not to look foolish, the more foolish he becomes. This is a central paradox in Orwell's essay.
Paradoxes arise from the contradictory nature of imperialism. Conquest and territorial expansion are often seen as an expression of a nation's strength. However, what frequently drives a nation to expand is an inability to manage and develop its own resources, leading to the need to dominate and take resources from outside territories. An island like Great Britain must utilize the resources of other lands in order to support its own infrastructure. Therefore, a great paradox arises in Britain's "strong" imperial expansion as an answer to its own fundamental weakness.
It is important to consider Orwell's project from the larger perspective of his ideas about writing and politics. In his later essays "The Prevention of Literature" (1946) and "Politics and the English Language" (1946), Orwell describes something that gets lost in the conversation.
According to Orwell, while "moral liberty" (the liberty to write about subjects that are taboo or sexually explicit) gets celebrated, "political liberty" does not get mentioned. In Orwell's opinion, the concept of political liberty is not well understood and is therefore neglected, even though it constitutes the foundations of free speech.
Orwell suggests that writing which doesn't aim to question and challenge the ruling structures falls into the grips of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism continually alters the facts of history to serve an ideological agenda, and what no totalitarian wants is for a writer to write truly about her own experience. Because of this, Orwell believes truthful reporting to be a writer's prime responsibility and the fundamental value of writing as an art form:
Freedom of the intellect means the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings.
("The Prevention of Literature")
Orwell's self-proclaimed project is to "make political writing into an art" ("Why I Write," 1946). In short, Orwell's purpose is to combine politics with aesthetics.
Aesthetics: a term that refers to questions of beauty and representation. It is the name of the branch of philosophy that deals with the relationship between beauty and truth.
Therefore, to understand Orwell's purpose in writing "Shooting an Elephant," we must understand two things:
In "Why I Write," Orwell claims that:
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.
How Orwell's writing does this changes depending on the text being read. In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell's writing attempts a clear and precise representation of a single event as it was immediately experienced.
The simplicity of Orwell's essay makes it easy to read metaphorically. Orwell's narrator could represent England, while the elephant could represent Burma. The Burmese people could represent the guilty conscience of the English military officers, and the gun could represent the colonial technology of imperial nations. Likely all of these and none of them are correct.
Personification in "Shooting an Elephant": It is important to keep in mind that the elephant in Orwell's essay gets dramatically personified, while the local Burmese people are de-personified and reduced to their position as onlookers.
Good prose is like a window pane.
("Why I Write")
The clarity and concision of Orwell's prose push the reader to reflect on how each person within the narrative represents actual people in a real moment in history.
Therefore, instead of focusing on what else the narrative could represent, it is important to focus on the simplicity of Orwell's writing and its clear representation of violence at the hands of the state, its reasons, and its repercussions. "Shooting an Elephant" throws a light on who gets to inflict violence and who pays the price for it.
1. Edward Quinn. Critical Companion to George Orwell: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. 2009.
The tone of Shooting an Elephant is matter-of-fact and indignant.
The speaker and narrator is George Orwell himself.
The genre of Shooting an Elephant is the essay, creative nonfiction.
It is uncertain whether Shooting an Elephant is a true story. The major incident, however, has been verified by one of Orwell's fellow officers.
In Shooting an Elephant, Orwell argues that imperialism makes the imperializer look both foolish and un-free.
What country does Shooting an Elephant take place in?
What is George Orwell's birth name?
What is the name of the state that the elephant is in?
What is a synonym of the word 'paradox?'
Aesthetics is the study of ___'s relationship with truth.
What word describes George Orwell's writing style?
What kind of liberty does George Orwell want writers to pay more attention to?
How long did the British Raj occupy India and Burma?
Nearly 100 years
What is the current name of Burma?
What was Orwell's primary reason for shooting the elephant?
Not to appear foolish to the natives.
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