George Orwell, the birth name Eric Arthur Blair, was a famous British author whose literary works showed his love for simplicity in language. Most importantly they reflect Orwell’s “profound consciousness of social injustice and belief n democratic socialism (Orwell Archives).” As Orwell states in his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” “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 (Orwell).” Animal Farm, a satirical novel published in 1945, and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are considered his most famous works. Economist magazine named Orwell as the best storyteller of 20th century English culture (Economist.com).
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Much of Orwell’s work can be viewed as autobiographical. His job as an imperial policeman in Burma was the basis for his novel Burmese Days (1934). Orwell’s teaching, tramping, and experience with poverty in London and Paris are told in the novel Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). A continued investigation on not just personal poverty in Northern England (Yorkshire and Lancashire) but that of the overall population as well as the subject of The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). During the Spanish Civil War, Orwell volunteered with the Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification to fight fascism in revolutionary Catalonia, Spain. His 1938 novel, Homage to Catalonia tells this experience. Orwell is the author of over 100 essays, literary reviews, poems, and polemic journalistic articles as well.
From 1922 to 1927, Orwell was Assistant Superintendent in the British Imperial Police in British-controlled Burma. Orwell’s birthplace in Motihari, Benga Presidency, British India. His grandmother once lived in Moulmein – a city located in the Tenaserim division of Lower Burma. He took the position because he was familiar with the Moulmein. Because his job obligated him to enforce the law; Orwell was entangled in a dilemma because he was sympathetic to the Burmese working class. In the autumn of 1936, Orwell wrote Shooting An Elephant, an essay telling of this experience and in particular an incident that required him to shoot an elephant. The essay was published in New Writing First series No. 2 in 1936. This experience laid the foundation for his total hatred for imperialism which later fueled Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The story takes place in Moulmein and the central character is an unnamed sub-divisional police officer. The mood of the city is full of anti-European sentiment and from the start, we learn of the main character’s invincible predicament.
All this was perplexing and upsetting. At that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear…..All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible (Orwell).
Up until this point, he lives an ordinary existence until early one morning something “enlightening” happens only to build up his hatred of “the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act (Orwell).” A sub-inspector from another police station at the other end of town phones him to tell him that an elephant has gone on a rampage, under the influence of much (often spelled must sometimes and synonymous with madness) at the city bazaar. Armed with a.44 caliber Winchester rifle, he mounts a pony and heads to the scene. This part of the city is very poor – “a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palm-leaf, winding all over a steep hillside (Orwell).” At first, he receives conflicting reports from the villagers. Thinking the scare might be a joke, he considers leaving.
The report is confirmed when he confronts a woman and some children who come upon one of the elephant’s victims. He sends an orderly to bring an elephant rifle; with the initial intent of using it for his protection should he encounter the elephant. He heads for the paddy field, followed by a crowd of over two thousand people, only to find the elephant peacefully eating and back to normal. By this time, however, the villagers are expecting him to do something about the elephant for all the trouble it caused.
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They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat. It made me vaguely uneasy.. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality, I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind (Orwell).
It is at this point that he becomes aware of what it means to truly be free(Orwell).
I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis, he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.
He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it (Orwell).
At this point of the story, the main character becomes involved in a mental/psychological war as to whether he should shoot the elephant or not. To no purpose, he shoots the elephant three to four times, still not able to kill him. He leaves it to die slowly so the villagers can strip it for its meat. The essay concludes with a debate among his colleagues concerning his decision to shoot the elephant.
Afterward, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans, opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterward I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool (Orwell).
Many themes and symbols exist in the essay. Shooting An Elephant is Orwell’s call for the end of British imperialism. Whether or not he, shot an elephant has been subject to debate, but the essay is in line with his other semi autobiographical works and exudes Orwell’s contempt for totalitarianism. It is fair to say that he is the narrator. A major component of imperialism is the culture clash – the clash between the colonized (Burmese) and the colonizer (British). This clash is ever-present in the essay as well the role of individual conscience and duty/image. The narrator represents the industrialized/imperialistic West with its trappings of technological excellence and civic administration. The Burmese are powerless and in search of their freedom as well as field of action. In this invincible battle – a mental quagmire – the reader witnesses his ethos at odds with his institutional persona. He is very sensitive to suffering and human savagery. In describing the Burmese villager the elephant kills, he uses the word “crucified” – for all intents and purposes an emotionally descriptive and intense adjective. “He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes….. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side (Orwell).”
The elephant is the largest of land animals on earth. With a life span of 50 to 70 years, they can weigh up to 26,000 pounds and measure in height over six yards. They are known for their good memory and wisdom/intelligence. They are considered exotic. Aristotle once described the elephant as “the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind (Caitlin).” With this being said, the shooting of an elephant, from the narrator’s point of view, is a major moral decision.
But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age, I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large anima (Orwell).
The symbolism of the elephant could have a two-fold meaning. From one perspective it could mean the large nature of an imperialistic regime and its use or extension of power, authority, and influence. The villagers, in an expression of human savagery, want the elephant killed. Comparable to an imperialistic regime, they feel powerless in the elephant’s presence. Their frustration is quieted down in killing the elephant/regime and in the end “stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon (Orwell).” It dies slowly representing the power of an imperialistic system and how hard it is to go away expeditiously. Consequentially, the elephant could be representative of the officer’s plight. Like the elephant, he is the victim of his circumstances and environment. Most importantly, the essay examines the ruthless dichotomy of mob/lynch behavior and how disorder (killing) is paradoxically used to bring about order.
Through symbolism, Orwell demonstrates the horror and senselessness of imperialism. Imperialism does not accomplish anything as embodied by the powerless of the elephant to move and eventually die. The elephant is the moral conscience of the narrator. Following the expectations of others is not always good and being trapped to point that one’s principles are compromised puts one into a hellish state. It is the worst kind of authoritative control. For Orwell, an ideal or utopian society could never exist, for the ideologies are manipulated and perverted by those in positions of political and social power. Unfortunately, the world’s principles revolve around one man’s heaven is another man’s hell. Could it be that in killing the elephant Orwell feels that imperialism will eventually go away? Orwell’s works certainly suggest that hopefully one day it will. Shooting An Elephant, like all his works, illustrates Orwell’s unique ability to get to the heart of any matter in an opinionated, uncompromising, challenging, and hugely entertaining yet simple fashion. His contributions have and will continue to have an unforgettable influence on the literary world.
George Orwell. UCL Orwell Archives. Web.
O’Connell, Caitlin (2007). The Elephant’s Secret Sense: The Hidden Lives of the Wild Herds of Africa. New York City: Simon & Schuster. pp. 174, 184.
Orwell, George. “Why I Write” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 1 – An Age Like This 1945-1950 p.23 (Penguin).
Orwell, George. “Shooting An Elephant.” New Writing. 1936. Web.
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“Still the Moon Under Water” Economist.com, 2008.