“Shooting the elephant” is a story that explores the description of an imaginary encounter of an Englishman working in the Colonial police force in Burma. The story describes an experience with an uncontrollable and deterministic elephant. The narrator shows that he did not want to shoot the elephant but he had to do it by the will of the submissive Burmese people to bring about redemption of the people.
The study gives the breakdown of colonial nations as applied by the actors in the colonised regions. The officer describes his breakdown by expressing the mockery received for the authority. The story captures the violent reality of colonialism as the narrator unfolds the events of the actual shooting and the description of the slow and painful death of the elephant that seemed peaceful in hands of a colonial officer. The above study argues that George Orwell’s “Shooting an elephant” story represents a symbol of imperialism.
The story of shooting the elephant begins with a thoughtful introduction of the actions where the narrator, Orwell, describes the difficulty of being a colonial police officer, especially, in the middle of the twentieth century in British Burma; where many people hated him. Orwell shows how the anti-Europeans were bitter to an extent of spitting on the European women as they crossed over to the market. The sub divisional police officers would now raise more alarm as the Burmese could yell with revolting laughter.
Orwell therefore understood the hatred and thought was justified, though he admits that he would be happy if he could run through his oppressors. Johnston (375) puts that the event of shooting the elephant begins with a phone call that Orwell received about an elephant ravaging the bazaar. As a police officer and his hunting rifle, he followed the elephant to the village where the Buddhist priests had much hatred and were so many in the streets idle and jeering Europeans.
Runciman (182-183) shows that George Orwell’s book “Shooting an elephant” reflects the author as a socially conscious individual. He also says that the book served as a supplement in the days of the Burmese. Orwell shows his experience as a colonial official to both India and Burma, which were regions in the British Empire (Runciman 82-183). This study involves a colonial officer obligated to shoot a rogue elephant by the crowd from the indigenous residents for not wanting to seem a coward in the eyes of the huge crowd.
Orwell describes the event of shooting the elephant and compares it to the hostility reigning between the British Empire and the administrators, as well as the natives. In this situation, both parties have much hatred, mistrust, resentment and degrade one another and therefore the shooting represents a huge suffering expressed economically (Runciman 82-183).
“Shooting an Elephant” has created much criticism in the British literature, and especially in the political environment of modern criticism. This is because it has generated a debate on whether Orwell was legally right to condemn imperialism. Critics show insufficient condemnation and that the narrator is an agent of the British Empire who denounces the presence of the British who were corrupting their regions.
To begin with, it is important to analyse the historical background of the colonisation of Burma and describe the people of Burma. It is also necessary to provide the biography and bibliographical experience of George Orwell. This is because the author focuses on the relationship between the natives and the government. The breakdown of colonial rhetoric linking theory and practice shapes some of the phrases used by Orwell, for example, Orwell used the sea of yellow faces to display the idea of racism from the colonising people.
The author also looks at the Burmese villagers as the same people with no distinct characteristics. He describes the unplanned scattering of their houses and the palm-leaf thatched huts, marking them with yellow color create the difference between the white man’s power and the Burmese. This also describes poverty and foulness within the neighborhood.
On the other hand, the narrator is afraid of the Burmese and their forces and he describes them as a sea of people. The officer also offers the people presence and much more force than his. He also realises that he is one person among a “sea” of many others.
The colonial officer notices that though he is legally powerful and has a rifle, the events of the day remain dictated by the people behind him who would see him as a fool if he did not shoot the elephant in spite of having the weapon amidst many helpless Burmese. The author also uses words such as magical, conjurer and absurd puppet to show he is against the British colonial powers. The words take the fear of the colonised people that the British people criticise.
Orwell uses un-scientific words when describing the event. The use of diction displays a corrupt British influence to the colonized people and reflects the degradation of the style of the colonising powers. This study therefore shows the moving symbol of the colonial experience.
The view of British imperialism is more reflected where the colonial officer shows that he is against the oppressors and their evil deeds. Though he is a British officer and has much authority among the Burmese people, he has some build up hatred and remorse towards himself and his empire, as well as to the Burma people whom he refers to as evil spirited little beasts.
The essay therefore does not only show the personal experience with the elephant, but also uses metaphors to show the experience with the imperialism and his views towards the colonial rule.
Orwell expresses hostile feelings towards the imperialism, British justification for taking over the powers of the Burma people and the entire British Empire. Orwell has set the mood of the essay by illustrating the climate to be cloudy and stuffy morning at the beginning of the rain. This shows that Orwell has established that his character is weak and discomforting especially by describing how the Burma people laughed and mocked him.
According to Adas & Peter (54-58) imperialism has been a cause for the poor relationship between the Burma people and police officers. The breakdown brings the beliefs of imperialism in practical application. This is shown by how the British came to power and the history of the Burma and how the society had been exploited.
Orwell gives his experience in Burma and the story shows the mood and feeling of a person experiencing British imperial break down. Orwell realised that though he is the authority in the region, the Burmese people had control over his actions. This shows that there was a poor relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. The officer describes his nature of authority as derived from the people as opposed to self-designed force.
He states that he stood with a rifle in his hands and thought of the hollowness and ineffectiveness of the power of the white man in the East. With much power between citizens and political leaders in England over the Burmese people, the people using the authority had also recognised the poor relationship between the colonised and the colonisers.
It is therefore clear that the buildup of the story of finding the elephant serves a metaphoric force to illuminate on the imperialist powers that usurps the rights of the people. The narrator shows that the elephant’s rampaging destroyed homes, food shelves and worse of all, it killed a man described as having an unbearable agony on his face. Upon finding the elephant, the narrator also describes that he knew for sure that he had no right to shoot him.
This shows that as a colonial officer, he ought not to kill his ruling government but support it (Barbara 46). The narrator also says that when he laid his eyes on the huge mass of Burmese behind him, he changed his attitude towards shooting the elephant. He continually says that he did not want to shoot the elephant and this explains that the narrator understands the guilt of shooting an elephant that seemed so peaceful from a distance.
The narrator also gives various reasons why he did not want to shoot the elephant, for example, he states that an elephant was worth more alive than it dead. He also states that he is bad at shooting, and he would not want to miss the target, as he never wanted the crowd to laugh at him and make him seem defeated. This shows that the colonial police officer fell to the expectations of the Burmese. He went against his will and moral belief and decided to shoot (Barbara 46). This describes how the British people would never want to seem less powerful than the natives as the colonisers in the story did. The death of the elephant metaphorically represents the British Imperialism in Burma. This is because before the British expansion came to Burma, it was a free kingdom and the Burmese and the British oppressors fought three wars. Barbara (2006) describes that the first was the Anglo-Burmese War fought in 1824 and the other was in 1852. The third war was in 1855 where the British took over Burma.
Orwell states that he did not hear the bang or kick of the first trigger, and he had to fire again at the same spot between the ears where it was easier to kill the elephant. The third firing illustrates the final shot to the elephant, as it showed the agony that jolted its whole body. The elephant knocked its last strength from his legs.
The three wars therefore represented the three shots. Hobson (2005) puts it that the elephant represented Burma and its unyielding struggle to remain powerful over the colonisers (5-7). This can be compared to how the elephant had tried to remain alive after the third shot.
By staying down after the third shot, the elephant is still alive, just like the Burmese people who were still there, powerless and helpless once the three wars. Orwell (1936) explains that the Burmese are now under the control of the British, and the death of the elephant is a metaphor showing the British rule and how it has declined against Burmese as some went away and others died (67).
Orwell reflects guilt by stating that seeing the elephant lying so powerless on the ground unable to move and yet powerless to die. The narrator shows that he is guilty being a colonial police officer who fought in the war against Burma. Beissinger (294-303) shows that Britons were also doubtful of their right to rule others in their territory.
This mounted much hatred and resentment from the Burmese. By killing the elephant, Orwell justifies himself for having the right to shoot and that it was legal. He justifies this using the fact that a mad elephant deserves being killed just as a mad dog is once the owner does not control it (Beissinger 299). He also admits being glad for the elephant had killed a villager and legally that justifies a legal act. However, Orwell realises the truth to be false in the wake of the efforts to save the elephant.
Orwell uses the metaphors; for example, by comparing himself to a magician and the huge masses of villagers was his audience. He also compares himself to a lead actor and as an absurd puppet. Orwell states that he represents a posing dummy and that he looked like a person wearing a mask. This is because by holding the rifle, the Burma people expected to see the elephant down. John (2008) describes that though he was a white man and more so, in the authority, it was more expected that he had to kill the elephant.
This describes George Orwell’s realisation of the position of the whites in the East and the negative contribution of imperialism. Orwell also realised that once a white man became a tormenter, he destroyed his own freedom. He says that white men should constantly do what the natives expect from them and impress them as they have control over the white man. Orwell completes his role and realises that throughout his rule in Burma, he is the Burmese victim.
Shooting the elephant is a clear depiction of the imperialist powers that wok to the detriment of the subjects. In his metaphoric epresentations, Orwell manages to demonstrate in clear terms the immense negative images portrayed by the inhibiting powers of the colonial masters.
By mentioning himself as an actor in the play, the narrator realised that he had to impress his audience who were people from Burma, and says that by aiming at the elephant’s head, the people behind him felt as if the curtains from the theatre were finally opened for the audience to view the play. These descriptions show his weaker character of submission to the crowd, which defines the order of the day through control of his actions.
However, he had to wear a mask and act like a powerful white man. The examples show the double-edged sword of imperialism and its misrepresentation of the people. The personal experience shows a moral dilemma reflecting the evils influenced by the colonial politics and imperialism.
Orwell represents an anti-imperialist writer that promotes this through the story of shooting the elephant. This is because, in this case, both the colonisers and the colonised are destroyed at the end. He detests the tethering effects of the colonial Britain and the story shows that the conqueror does not control the situation, but the expectations of the people guide him.
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Barbara, Bush. Imperialism and Post colonialism, History: Concepts, Theories and Practice, Longmans, 2006. Print.
Beissinger, Mark. “Soviet Empire as Family Resemblance,” Slavic Review 65 (2006): 294-303.
Hobson, Atkinson. Imperialism: a study. Cosimo, Inc. New York: 2005. Print.
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Johnston, Ronald. The Dictionary of Human Geography. eds. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000, Print.
Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant,”The Literature Network, 1936. Web. <http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/887/>
Runciman, David. Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond. New York: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.