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George Orwell – “Shooting an Elephant” (1936)

“Shooting an Elephant”, by George Orwell, is a highly effective piece of non-fiction. Although written about an event many years ago, in a society that no longer exists as it did then, the essay still holds relevance in the ideas it contains. It is how Orwell puts across his views on colonialism and human nature that I intend to investigate.

The essay revolves around Orwell recounting an incident which he experienced as a policeman in colonial Burma, in the 1920’s. Orwell was called to act when a tame elephant went ‘must’ and started ravaging a bazaar, killing one of the indigenous Indians. However, by the time he had located the elephant, the attack seemed to have passed, so there was no need to destroy it. Yet such was the pressure from the local populace, and Orwell’s fear of being mocked, that he shot the elephant.

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When he first introduces himself to the reader, Orwell seems to be a fairly level-headed person, with his self- depreciating tone showing that he doesn’t take himself too seriously in the ‘great scheme’ of things; drawing the reader to sympathise with him. This sympathy is extended further when the reader is made privy to the ambivalence of Orwell’s feelings towards his position in Burma. In direct contrast to the majority of Westerners in the East at that time, Orwell was very conscious of the hypocrisy of his position and conflicting opinions, and found it all “perplexing and upsetting”. “Perplexing” because he felt sympathetic towards the Burmese, and was against the Western domination of the colonial territories, and sided with the “evil thing” that was imperialism. Yet at the same time the Burmese took great delight in treating him like dirt, in petty revenge for their situation – making his job and life hell.

These conflicting feelings are echoed in the register and style of Orwell’s writing; the high-flowing language of “Imperialism was an evil thing” contrasts with the slang of “The sooner I chucked my job…the better”, to bring out Orwell’s intense dislike of his duties, doing the “dirty work” of the “Empire”. Yet despite the highly emotive language used to describe his job, the “wretched prisoners” and “intolerable” sense of guilt, Orwell still found himself hating the Burmese. The sheer pettiness of the “evil spirited little beasts”, their cumulative bitterness making it impossible for him to help them, led to a feeling that it “would be the greatest joy in the world” to “drive a bayonet into a Buddhist Priest’s guts”.

Even the word choice and sentence structure indicate the extent to which Orwell was in two minds about the Burmese; the contrast between the “British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny… in soecula soeculorum” – lapsing into Latin, formal language – with the informality of “drive a bayonet into a Buddhist Priest’s guts”. In addition, the sentence structure adds to this idea of being pulled in two directions; the differing statements are separated by a semi-colon, balancing the one against the other, neither dominant.

Once the extent of his feelings towards the job and the Burmese have been established, Orwell starts to recount the incident involving the elephant. Originally Orwell introduces it as a “tiny thing” in itself, using understatement and irony to begin the narrative. He first refers to it as something which “in a roundabout way” was “enlightening”. Yet at the same time, ‘it’ was an insight for him into the “real motives for which despotic governments act”. Human nature and the reasons for our society’s structure – not important?

However, after this hidden intensity, Orwell then continues in a fairly congenial manner, of how he was informed – through polite, unstressed telephone call – that there was an elephant gone ‘must’ and escaped, and “would I please come and do something about it?” At which point Orwell does go out “to see what was happening” – but out of curiosity, not duty.

When a list of things that the elephant has done is presented, some of them fairly serious, they are ordered in such a way as to make them seem irrelevant, through anti-climax. Rather than working his way through progressively more serious offences, Orwell begins the list with destroying someone’s house, killing a cow… then working ‘down’ to stealing some fruit – and finally, overturning the rubbish bin van and “inflicted violences” on it. The hyperbole of “inflicted violences”, the exaggerated anti-climax, leads to a light-hearted, unstressed mood.

However, at this point Orwell constructs the first of several pivotal points in the narrative, bringing about an abrupt contrast in mood. At the beginning of this paragraph, Orwell is unsuccessfully searching for the elephant, and even beginning to doubt its existence, starting with “questioning… failed to get any definite information… vaguer…” until the existence of any elephant was denied. Yet then this carefully constructed conclusion is shattered by the painful death of a Coringhee native Indian, ground into the mud by the elephant.

To add to the effect of this sudden seriousness and shock, Orwell uses extremely emotive imagery and word choice to detail the obvious pain of man’s death. With the description of “arms crucified” there is the connotations of one of the most excruciating deaths; being crucified. Also, this idea would have been imaginable to a primarily Christian Britain of 1936, when Orwell wrote the essay. A British readership would also have been able to conceive what the man’s back looked like, as Orwell describes the friction from the elephant’s foot as having “stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit”. Most Britons of the time would have prepared, or seen prepared, a rabbit skinned and cooked, so this imagery brought a potentially unimaginable event to an understandable level.

It is at this point that Orwell goes on to work through the implications and factors behind shooting the elephant, and upon discovering the creature, apparently calm and past it’s attack of ‘must’, he decides not to shoot it. Elephants were expensive to buy, keep and train, and as such, worth a lot of money alive – dead, they were worth only the value of their tusks. In addition to the financial complications, the elephant no longer seemed to be a danger; away from people, “peacefully eating” in a field – there was no need to shoot it. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Orwell himself did not want to shoot the elephant; a moral choice, that he felt it was ‘wrong’.

However, throughout this decision making process, Orwell was becoming increasingly conscious of the growing crowd of Burmese at is heels; and this became another pivotal point in the passage. Initially Orwell mentioned feeling “vaguely uneasy” about the growing size of the crowd, intensifying to “looking and feeling like a fool”. He describes the crowd as looking at him as a “conjuror about to perform a trick”. The ‘magician’, the centre of attention, if not the object of respect, at a show, usually with an audience half hoping he will fail; clear parallels to Orwell, surrounded by the mocking Burmese. Perhaps the comparison is also apt because many people – especially in the time when Orwell was writing – view those who work in the ‘occult’ as not having a proper job, aren’t really important at all, despite the glitter and attention. Mere amusement for others – an echo of British colonialism?

Orwell’s growing feeling of helplessness is summed up in the theatrical language and imagery which he uses in this point in the passage. He refers to himself as “seemingly the leading actor of the piece… in reality, I was only an absurd puppet”. Puppets have no control over the actions they act out – inanimate, passive, subjected to the will of the puppeteer. Who’s actions, in turn, are dictated by the audience – else how could the puppeteer survive, without a livelihood? Similarly, it was the will of the crowd that was beginning to control Orwell’s actions – a puppet. This image is then furthered by Orwell drawing parallels to a “Hollow, posing dummy”, holding many of the same connotations, posed into the positions that its owner or dresser dictate. No choice, subjugated to the will of others completely.

This position which Orwell find himself in is summed up in his chilling conclusion; “I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys”. Seemingly paradoxical, for a “tyrant”, by definition, sacrifices others freedom for personal gain – so why should they lose freedom as a result? Yet in the context of Orwell, and Britain’s situation at this time, the concept begins to make sense. Once people expect a given set of actions or set behaviour, the ‘peer pressure’ can compress those it is aimed at into the mould; so British citizens in the colonies, including Orwell, ended up losing their freedom as individuals, in order to conform to stereotypes they otherwise might not have followed.

In Orwell’s case, having sent for the rifle, the Burmese expect him to use it, else seem weak and indecisive – and “my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at”. The ultimate sign of derision – laughter. The only other option for Orwell was to walk up to within 25-odd yards of the elephant, and see if it charged him; if not, then he had proved the attack of ‘must’ had passed, and would be justified in the eyes of the Burmese in not shooting the creature. However, if still in ‘must’ then the elephant would charge Orwell – and at that distance, he would only get one chance to shoot before being trampled into the earth in the same painful death the Coringhee Indian had experience. Yet it is not the pain that Orwell was so anxious to avoid, but the fact that such a death would be incredibly humiliating – and “if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.” It is this that led Orwell to conclude “There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim.”

This paragraph is clearly another pivotal section; previously Orwell had thought he was the one in control of the situation, and could therefore follow a logical train of reasoning to decide not to shoot the elephant; yet is here that he realises he does not control his own actions. All Orwell cares about at this point is saving face in front of the ‘natives’ – realises this obsession, and doesn’t care, so deeply is he concerned with the idea of being laughed at.

This leads to the true climax of the narrative – the shooting of the elephant. By this point the author skilfully manipulates the word choice and language to convey how, when the bullet hits, a “mysterious, terrible change came over the elephant.” Previously the creature had been tall and strong, full of life and power; now he seemed “stricken, shrunken, immensely old…paralysed” – the impression of life seeping away with such speed that the elephant was left reeling in shock at the alteration, not ‘merely’ the pain of the bullets.

The sheer force of language shows the intense pain of the elephant’s drawn out death; from the “frightful impact of the bullet… agony… jolt his whole body” until the creature finally “collapsed”, to lie with “tortured breathing…gasps”. The implications behind “tortured” are clear, yet there is also the angle of the guilt Orwell felt coming through here; “tortured” implies a deliberate act inflicted on the undeserving, as Orwell had inflicted his fears on the elephant. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – this guilt, Orwell still seems to convey a strange sort of dignity to the elephant’s death; as it lay there, “Powerless to move and yet powerless to die”. He was dying, yes, an excruciatingly drawn out death, yet he seemed to be “in some world remote from here” – there is a surreal quality to Orwell’s description of the death and dignity of the beast, removed in some way from this world. The elephant is in direct and superior contrast to Orwell’s frantic efforts to kill it and end its suffering, and the Burmese as they swarmed around the body, stripping the flesh and hide even before it was dead, while it lay there, passively accepting the pain and death.

Orwell also highlights his reaction to this change, first of his frantic activity, then, in the face of his inability to help the creature he had fatally wounded, his intense guilt. He writes of how “In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away”; the overwhelming guilt at having caused such pain merely to avoid being laughed at, and then his underlying guilt at ‘running away’. Looking back on the events of this incident, which occurred ten years previous to Orwell writing the passage, it is clear that Orwell’s own opinion of his actions is not a positive one. This feeling of self-discrimination and regret is brought out in his extended description of the elephant’s death, portraying it as possessing a quiet dignity; while portraying his younger self as ‘unworthy’ and weak, uncertain in himself as to who he really is, or what he believes in.

It is this disgust that Orwell tries to instil in his readers, towards his actions. After the death of the elephant, he writes how “I was very glad that the Coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant.” Seemingly uncaring as to the death of the ‘Coolie’ – through this shock tactic, attempting to persuade others to condemn him as Orwell condemns himself. Orwell even goes so far as to make several racist comments – even though the author of 1936 was not racist, and his younger self only conforming to the accepted mould of his times, in order to survive – to prompt the reader to judge him harshly. With his extended, detailed description of the elephant’s death, Orwell condemns his own actions, in a tone of bitterly ironic self-derision.

Orwell might seem to be being racist in the last paragraph, but in fact, this racism is dramatised to show just how integral to the colonial system it was. Orwell is not excusing, or even denying the fact that he was racist while in Burma. The point is that, in his descriptions of his younger self as “young and ill-educated” – ironic, as he attended Eton – he was forced to “think out (his) problems in the utter silence that is imposed upon every Englishman in the East”. Expensive education had failed to prepare him for real life, so Orwell resorted to the customs and conventions of his peer grouping, or risk complete isolation from society.

In the final paragraph, Orwell puts forward two arguments concerning his reasons for shooting the elephant. When he talks about being “legally in the right” in shooting a creature that could be mad and a danger, it seems as if Orwell is going to use a deontological reasoning. He was following the law, and his actions were required by virtue of his position, so he morally did the ‘right’ thing. The other approach to an argument for a set of actions, rather than the backwards looking deontological reasoning, is the forward looking consequentialist approach, of the ends justifying the means. However, it is in the last sentence that Orwell shatters all charade of having been following a deontological reasoning; “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool”.

When Orwell states that he was “very glad” that the man had been killed by the elephant, in that through it he could ‘justify’ his preservation of ‘dignity’, it might seem callous to some. Yet this desperation, this willingness to sacrifice anything also elicits a sort of sympathy in the reader, at how pathetic the situation has become – perhaps reflective of the mixed feelings of contempt and pity that the Orwell of 1936 seems to feel towards his younger self.

There are several possible themes to this essay; the condemnation of the colonial system – perhaps seemingly without significance in today’s post-colonial world. Yet there are possible parallels to modern day ‘superpowers’ and dictatorships, conforming to stereotypes, unwilling to back down from, say, war, for fear of changing perceptions. People still discriminate, still conform to other’s standards against their will. There is also the idea that if you hate an enemy viciously enough, you demean yourself to the same level as them. Even if originally ‘justifiably angry’, following reasonable logic, in hatred, you degenerate into conforming to the same behavioural patterns as your enemies; hatred contaminates. Orwell himself is an example of this; he seemed reasonably level headed, yet as his hatred for the Burmese grew, he gradually degenerated to similar levels of cruelty. Perhaps because he was formed by their perceptions, and the Burmese seemed to have had a cruel streak in them – which coloured their expectations?

Either way, it is clear that while world situations have changed radically, there are still many relevant issues that are demonstrated in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”. Perhaps it would be fair to say that it is not so much Orwell’s views on Colonialism that are shown in this essay, but his uncannily accurate observations of human nature.