Theme Of Conscience And Expectations In George Orwell’s Shooting An Elephant

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Decision making is a crucial stage in the proper functioning of our daily tasks. Each action of ours conceals the ability to become the turning point of our lives. Our behavioral patterns are nevertheless influenced by several diverse factors such as our image in other’s perspective. Therefore, this arises the question about whether we always do what we want or are we just puppets in the hands of those around us. Somehow, we are all at some point or the other behaving in the way we are expected to, even if it goes against our own conscience or self-satisfaction. Be it me or the narrator depicted by George Orwell in his short dystopian story “Shooting an Elephant,” we are prone to the issue of pleasing everyone and thus, often struggle when making the final decision. Indeed, this conflict, between listening to our inner voice and behaving as others want, unveils the real battle within oneself.

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Through politics and imperialism, Orwell successfully uses the image of the narrator to show one’s usual inner conflict. The Burmans, in fact, viewed the policeman as a symbol of their sufferings and a remembrance of the dictatorship of the British oppressors. Consequently, their behavior towards him was reflection of their ultimate hatred; for them, the narrator was simply a laughingstock. The latter, despite being the very personification of the defense section for an immense ruling system, was ironically powerless before the locals who were not even free. Furthermore, the regime he represented was one to whose rules he did not agree with. The narrator’s feelings and the descriptions of imagery clearly demonstrates that he was against his own British Empire and had sympathy for the oppressed locals. Yet, his actions showed otherwise. He executed his service daily against his own will, illustrating his lack of self-confidence and thus, his susceptibility. Tactfully, while finding a way to depict his criticism towards the British Empire’s tyranny, Orwell introduces his readers to the global humanitarian issue of an inner fight against oneself.

The author, in his piece of writing, also ensures that a major factor affecting the narrator’s decision-making stands out: the fear of being ridiculed if he had not shot the elephant. The sub-divisional police officer went against his conscience and played in accordance to the anticipation of the native people. As Orwell states, “They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick”, the act was merely a spectacle for the locals, and the aim of the narrator was to please the people, which he did. Even if he knew it was unethical to shoot the elephant, he simply acted as a tyrant in order to show his superiority whilst, also trying to save his tenuous position. As a sahib, “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” (Orwell 4). It was thus the desire of the Burmans, through the narrator, that brought the massive elephant to its knees. Orwell clearly uses this incident to exemplify the fore coming Indian revolution which ended up in the termination of the British Empire. Just like the massive creature’s drawn out death was highly awaited by the Burmese, the downfall of the British oppressors was strongly desired by local natives. Whether or not it was Orwell’s intention to transmit a significant message through this small story, it is clear that the words written in “Shooting an Elephant” still have an impact on its readers. The story demonstrates how easy it can be for anyone, blinded by fear or any external pressure, to disregard the sense of right or wrong.

Surely, everyone can relate to a personal anecdote based on the fundamental principle that Orwell shares. Not more than about three years ago, I found myself in a similar situation as the narrator. My academic life was in front of a junction and walking on either road would determine my future. I was bound to choose my A-Level subjects for my senior year at high school. Taking up the economics and business section had been a tradition for my family members. Since my father is an Economics educator and my uncle is a successful accountant, everyone expected me to follow the same trend. Even my parents encouraged me to do the same. Nonetheless, I had more of an inkling towards the sciences — I wanted to get more involved in the world of nature rather than discovering the global market. Juggling in-between whether to take up the science side and satisfy my wish or to listen to my well-wishers and suppress my desire was not at all easy.

However, the urge to be independent drove me further. I wanted to be fully responsible for every event of my life and not blame someone else if I could not cope. Thus, I knew that sooner or later, I would have to confront everyone. It was a huge burden until I explained everything to my father. His reaction is one that still surprises me until this date. He simply smiled and said, “Always follow your heart and live your life fully.” This one step of mine eventually brought a wave of relief and happiness. As far as the other relatives were concerned, they were shocked at my decision and even tried to persuade me for weeks. Nevertheless, I stood firm on my ground and eventually did well in my end-of-year exams. This would not have happened if I had not listened to my inner self on that day.

Each individual has their own sense of reflection, which can be dependent on various factors when making a decision. Unlike the narrator in the story of Orwell, I was prompted to listen to my conscience and eventually did what I wanted to do. I kept my moral compass steady even though it was a tough task. As for the narrator, in the fear of being ridiculed, he silenced his sense of morality and did not rely on his integrity. In contrast, I did not succumb to the thought of everyone’s reactions and pressure. Instead, I voiced out my perspective and kept my level of comfort stable. However, while I took a few days before contemplating and reaching a consensus, the decision of the narrator was an impromptu one. He was faced with more pressure in less time than in my case. Furthermore, while he had to reply people he did not relate to, I was surrounded by my loved ones who, in the near future, would have eventually understood. In his case, backing away from shooting the elephant would not only stain the clear picture of being an oppressor, but it would have been the talk of Lower Burma for quite a long time. Perhaps he would have been pointed at, each day. The narrator was indeed in a tougher position than me, thereby explaining our diverse reactions. At that time, he still had a choice though. If he had listened to himself and ignored for once the murmurs, he would have found his solace and the invaluable life of an innocent would not have been sacrificed at the expense of pride.

Taking the right path when making a decision under pressure can be complicated. The strongly heated debate between listening to our own self or standing up to the expectations of others can even make us forget about our ethics. People are sometimes too afraid to lose their self-esteem that they often end up ignoring their inner call and walk on the wrong path. Orwell, relating his story to historical events, eventually leaves out several trails about the true value of conscience. We, the readers, should comprehend and apply this essence of life in real life, just like I did.

Works cited 

  • Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950. 1-6. Print
10 Jun 2021

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