Analysis Of Powerful Messages In George Orwell’s Shooting An Elephant

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In his essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’ (1936), Orwell writes about a British police officer appointed in Burma as per the imperialism being carried out by the British. Orwell describes the difficulties the officer faces at the hands of the Burmese who go quite far to show their passive aggressive nature towards imperialism. An incident breaks out at the bazaar where a wild elephant and causes havoc in the town, killing a coolie in the process. A situation presents itself to the officer where he must choose between humiliation by a large crowd pushing him to shoot the elephant and his conscious questioning whether such an act was necessary as the elephant was not harming anyone. The officer’s ego prevails, and he takes the shot, seemingly regretting it instantly but later making sure he finished off the job. Which he does not do very well. The officer seemingly regrets his decision but attempts to justify this act of tyranny by claiming that he ‘didn’t have a choice’.

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Orwell has made use of a very simple yet impactful anecdote through which he outs forward several powerful messages. Orwell makes a very strong use of Pathos in his essay which aid in signifying his criticism of British imperialism, values and human need for relevance and fitting in. He has covered similar areas of human vulnerability in his other works such as Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

A very hostile environment from the point of view of the British officer is described where the Burmese are looking at him as an outcast. The description of how the British were treated. as seen by the spitting of betel juice on lone British women or by humiliating the officer on the football field through unfair play, gives us a good insight on the low self-esteem of the officer. He made it very clear that he was against the same British system he was working for which goes to show that he had some sort of self-awareness, but like most of us today, he seemed to comply to authority. And maybe that is the message Orwell was trying to portray that how people continue to work for bad systems and as a result as good as they may be at heart, end up looking bad because they fear the consequences of rebellion. And later we find that this only builds up frustration in the officer evident as Orwell writes that; “I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” This really allows us to feel the strength of the officer’s feelings with the British imperialism. Orwell creates a good atmosphere for the events to come in the story. Even the language used is strong, which gives the reader a feeling that a story is building up, however, the transition to the roundabout incident is not very smooth as it moves from a high emotional state of the officer to a less intense beginning. This could make the reader lose the emotional involvement that was previously built.

Following this throughout the essay Orwell used very specific and descriptive language in emphasizing on those parts that would create an emotion in the readers. A good example from the essay is as follows:

… and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.) The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. 

Using such description allows the reader to create an image of the scene and be able to imagine the story in their heads. Orwell does this particularly well which compliments his type of writing against social injustices as it allows us to very easily imagine ourselves in such situations.

Going towards the part where the officer intends on killing the elephant, not because he thought it was necessary, but because he thought this would be his opportunity to be able to gain some respect from the two thousand plus Burmese surrounding him. Orwell has ingrained a very deep message through this scenario that is the human desire for relevance. That is something we see as an epidemic in present times where it has spread from individuals to corporations to political parties all wanting to be liked by people and in the process, “[W]earing a mask, and fitting ourselves into it” as Orwell writes in this essay. Not to forget the role of the Burmese crowd as itself as it was forcing a single officer to commit this tyranny. It would be unfair to blame just the officer and Orwell has done well to emphasize the great number of people that were at the officers back. This pressure from the mass was probably what contributed in making Hitler the extremist he became or Modi (Current Indian prime minister) the extremist he is and that is what Orwell wants us to reflect upon. Under immense expectation and authority, most of us would be willing to do things we usually would not.

Another way to interpret the essay would be to look at the officer as someone who was in a position of authority in this certain situation and thought it would be justified for him to do what it takes to look good i.e. Shoot the elephant. It would be easy for us to criticize this idea of that misusing authority is bad, hence, the officer should not have taken the shot. However, ‘The Stanford prison experiment (1971)’, an experiment led by Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, which found that given a position of authority, most ordinary people would use coercion in order to maintain order. The officer’s case is no different as he has the legal authority to shoot the elephant and although he did not feel it was necessary, he did it anyway. To put it shortly, most people are capable of doing horrible acts, they just don’t have that authority or power to do so. In the end the most these people go as far as their authority allows them. Orwell has not made this point very oblivious in the essay, however, later studies such as the Stanford Prison experiment have helped us understand Orwell’s essay in a different light. Also not forgetting how the officer later justified this act through several reasons possibly to make himself feel better, but deep down like most of us after doing something against our values, a feeling of self-hatred exists.

A final interesting observation which we could take away from this essay by Orwell how despite not mentioning the gender of the British officer, most probably assumed it was a man. Although, unlikely that Orwell might have been signaling to such an assumption most of us (myself included!), it is important to note that the issues presented transcend gender identities. These problems Orwell saw 83 years ago have now become a norm of our existence and can only be overcome if we accept and do what is right as Orwell indicated over what society wants us to do. 

10 Jun 2021

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