The themes of oppression, alienation, and identity often permeate the well-known pieces of modern and classic literature. Conflicts that are understood on an instinct level are often engaging for the reader and broad with possible meanings. The basic issue at the core of a story can be expanded and turned into an extensive commentary on any topic imaginable. The themes of society’s influence on a person’s behavior are often used to critique and call into question the existing order of the world from a singular point of view. This essay mainly focuses on the themes of identity and community relationships in George Orwell’s “Shooting the Elephant” and James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village”. The general thesis for this paper is that the protagonists’ bond with their community is defined by their identity, expectation, and cultural background.
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To start off, one of the themes displayed in both texts is the alienation from the community and its effects on an individual. Orwell’s book recounts the experiences of an English police officer in Burma, who is called to kill an elephant. The protagonist contemplates on how dangerous the animal actually is and feels hesitant to end its life, thinking that it will not cause further harm. Disregarding his moral concerns, the hero shoots an elephant in fear of being ridiculed by the natives. Orwell’s main character feels distant from the people of Burma due to his status as a white man in a position of power. The need to reassert himself in front of people that reject him influences his decision-making process, and the hero feels pained after the incident.
In the case of Baldwin’s novel, the piece retells his experiences living in a Swiss village and his thoughts on the racial struggles of black people. The author is confronted with a community that is starkly different from what he has known previously, with the villagers having never seen a black person before. In hopes of integrating and conforming to his surroundings, Baldwin tries to connect with the people around him. Unfortunately, the townsfolk see him as an exotic attraction, not as a person, and do not make any efforts to understand the hero. In both of these stories, the heroes are molded and forced to act in accordance with societal expectations, while never being fully accepted into it.
Another important idea for both books is that an individual’s cultural and ethnic background defines how they are treated and their behavior. In the case of “Shooting an Elephant”, the main hero’s identity as a British white man predetermines his status as an outsider and one of the colonizers. The hero is perceived as a part of the system made by the British people and is unable to deviate from his assigned role due to a combination of external expectations and youthful inexperience. His status also commands how he perceives his role in society and how he acts in front of the people of Burma. The expectations for his behavior constrain the hero and make him feel doubtful about his decisions.
A similar situation can be observed in the “Stranger in the Village” as well, with the protagonist forced to deal with dehumanizing discrimination. Because of his ancestry, Baldwin is considered an outsider in Switzerland and in America. The village children call him a word similar to a racial slur without understanding the implications behind their words, the townspeople do not accept him. The author is forced into playing performative kindness to make people like him, a defense mechanism he has learned over the course of his life. The ignorance and cold treatment from the village people render Baldwin unable to express himself or establish meaningful connections with them.
A topic of contrast for these works is the treatment of racial minorities by the white people. Orwell’s story tackles this issue from the perspective of a white person, the perpetrator. The main character, although questioning the righteousness of his country’s actions, does not actively challenge his own or his people’s position in society. He also suffers from the need to constantly save face, which he attributes to his status as a colonizer. The hero expresses this by saying: “every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at” (Orwell). He partially sympathizes with the plight of the Indians but is ultimately forced to do his duties, against his better judgment. The internal monologues of the man show the complexity of this issue and reinforce the struggles of the Burmese people.
James Baldwin’s novel, on the other hand, shows this issue from a victim’s point of view. The Swiss, having no previous history of interracial relations cannot fathom the existence of a black person. This fact makes their behavior clueless and ignorant, even going as far as admitting to buying and converting blacks to Christianity, and treating that as something to be proud of. The story shows the complete cultural disconnect between black and European people. Alternatively, when contemplating the American racial relations, Baldwin claims that the lack of acceptance stems from white people’s inability to reconcile with the historic injustice they inflicted on black people. The author states that “there is a great deal of willpower involved in the white man’s naïveté”, reinforcing the notion that white people’s ignorance is beneficial to them (Baldwin). Baldwin thinks that accepting blacks as equals for white Americans would be akin to admitting their past wrongdoings, which goes against their sense of national pride.
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In conclusion, it can be noted that the two books, while having drastically different approaches, share many common themes and concerns. Both pieces show their protagonists as the outsiders of their respected communities, weighted down by the word of the masses. Orwell’s hero is forced to make decisions conflicting with his moral judgment, and Baldwin has no choice but to endure the mistreatment from people that do not understand his very existence. The protagonists are defined by their roots and function within society in accordance with their rules, even when they seem unjust. The inability to be personally understood leaves the heroes pondering on their roles in the respective communities. Protagonist’s ethnic identity determines how other people see them, and how they are expected to react. Both pieces also touch upon the racial relations between people, emphasizing the existing flaws of society and their effects on individuals. The negative aspects of the oppressors are shown in the fragility of white colonialist’s pride, and the inability to accept others as equals. The works call into question the existing social constructs and force the reader to evaluate their own beliefs on the subject.
“Part 3, Stranger in the Village.” Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin, Beacon Press, 1984.
Orwell, George. Shooting an Elephant: And Other Stories. Secker & Warburg, 1953.