Shooting an Elephant: Introductory Critique
George Orwell’s 1936 essay titled ‘Shooting an Elephant’, basically highlights the nature and influence of imperialism on the colonizers as well as colonized especially when the worth of the subjugated is measured against an elephant’s. This is indicated in relation to economic computations made between a person’s value, albeit a lesser one as depicted in terms of status, and that of an elephant (Orwell, 1936). Looking at the author’s other works, it is easy to identify a various commonalities including elements like status, power and control, imperialism, language and perspective, among others.
Generally, imperialism is one of the themes that Orwell’s works seem to focus on as depicted in ‘Burmese Days’ where the negative impacts of imperialism on the colonizers and the colonized are depicted through Flory, the protagonist. The author decries the hypocritical stance taken by the Europeans in their subjugating a sovereign people while feeling sorry for the colonizers stuck in an imperial worldview that they do not even benefit from. This is in reference to the position he is given as a white man in ‘Shooting an Elephant’, where he has to endure hate from others, high levels of stress and risk, compounded by being away from his home, where he can see the “dirty work of Empire at close quarter” (Orwell, 1936). The author identifies imperialism as an evil thing despite an ambivalent attitude towards empire and the native which he avers oppressed him with an intolerable sense of guilt.
The nature of power and control, though well-established under imperialism as a one-way relationship flowing from the colonizer to the colonized, is interestingly depicted in ‘Shooting an Elephant’ as also having a two-way orientation where the former is also influenced by the latter. More specifically, Orwell initially indicates that he would never have shot the elephant but the influence exerted by the crowd basically drove him to shoot the elephant which he himself confesses to that he killed ‘solely to avoid looking a fool’ (Orwell, 1936). This is informed by what Orwell (1936) laments as obligation to live and try impressing the natives and acting as they would expect a white man to behave including not be frightened in front of the natives, who would probably laugh at his being trampled and ‘that would never do’.
The theme of power is also presented in Orwell’s novel titled 1984, through the proposition of controlling language, given its significance in structuring and limiting the ideas that people come up with, which would basically pre-empt any rebellion or disobedience (Orwell, 1949). Though presented in relation to party politics at home (The United Kingdom), the use of language to control and gain absolute power over the masses can be identified in ‘Burmese Days’ through establishment of English as the primary language in government affairs. Interestingly, the potency of language is highlighted in another of Orwell’s works, the 1950 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ where political speech and writing is defined by a variety of shortcomings in the use of the English language in prose.
These shortcomings involve the use vagueness and euphemisms in the ‘defense of the indefensible’ like the purges and deportations in Russia, among others that are necessitated by the realities of the political environment (Orwell, 1950). The deliberate, erroneous use of the English language in politics, as an instrument for expression in justifying the unjustifiable using stale imagery and dying metaphors, among others, really reflects the power exercised through political language. As Elbarbary (1992) suggests, ‘the deliberate derangement of language, and linguistic exclusiveness which sustain the usurpation of power, stand out’ as one of Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm’s central thematic concerns. More specifically, language is identified as central to the enslavement of the animals by the pigs who have greater linguistic skills as the other animals are unable to decipher the deviousness expressed by the pigs and reinforced in practice.
Like in the novel 1984, the theme of power as language is also expressed in Animal Farm where the powerful minority in leadership positions can be inferred as utilizing propaganda and vague language to subjugate the lower classes by controlling their thought (Orwell, 1945). The rewriting of rules and history of the animal farm, the anticipated rise of the lower classes and the subjugation of the other animals seem to mirror events in Orwell’s novel, 1984 regarding the revision of historical records among other elements. Further, a powerful minority ruling a subjugated majority is evident in ‘Shooting an Elephant’ as can be identified of power dynamics between the colonized and colonizers even though the former are shown to influence the actions of the latter (pleasing the natives).
The essay however highlights a recurrence in the first person perspective matching that taken upon in ‘Shooting an elephant’ where the author provides a compelling narrative which is perceived first hand by the reader through the author’s eyes. Though critiquing the English language and its use in political speech and writing, anecdotes about Russia and other places provides personalized examples that depict the author’s experiences. These experiences and those highlighted in the author’s works like ‘Burmese Days’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ also provide a historical perspective of the impacts of imperialism not only the colonized but also the colonizers and their representatives such as Flory (Orwell, 1934). This includes unique insights into specific dynamics between the whites and the natives especially regarding the elements of status and racism as well as gender and identity, among others. Such a historical perspective can also be identified in Orwell’s novel 1984 in relation to references on the Spanish Inquisition, the German Nazis and the Russian Communists which delineate and enhance understanding of the author’s representation of a totalitarian state.
The unequal status defining the relationship between the colonized and the colonizers is depicted in ‘shooting an elephant’ in relation to the fury of the owner of the elephant, who, being ‘only an Indian…could do nothing’ (Orwell, 1936). This is also represented in ‘Burmese Days’ where, in planning to discredit and destroy a Dr. Veraswami, the Civil Surgeon and Superintendent of a jail, U Po Kyin affirms the danger of confronting an Indian man with an European friend (Orwell, 1934). The friend was Mr. Flory whom U Po Kyin felt would be an obstacle as a European friend could do them harm since he has prestige but since Flory was known to be a coward, the threat of the European diminished drastically. As such, it is evident that Europeans are held in high regard especially by the natives as depicted of Elizabeth in ‘Burmese Days’ after marrying the deputy commissioner, a Mr. MacGregor (1934).
Fundamentally, reading the other works basically situates the author’s writing style, claims and opinions about various subjects and most importantly provide a foundation for the primary text while also connecting themes across time. The inclusion of the other texts generally strengthens the analysis of the primary text in relation to commonalities including across works that do not address similar topics. For instance, power and control are depicted differently in texts like ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’ while Burmese Days and Shooting an Elephant have almost similar themes regarding imperialism. Essentially, the works do not only enhance understanding of the primary text but also of the author and how he presents his work besides establishing a timeline regarding the author’s evolving beliefs and opinions. This is in reference to ‘Burmese Days’ providing background information on ‘Shooting an Elephant’ which provides a footing in assessing potential bias by the author regarding his works. In summary, it is evident that Orwell’s other works amplify and delineate various themes and perspectives which can be identified as common to his various works including imperialism, power and control, status, and language, among others.
- Elbardary, S. (1992). Language as theme in Animal Farm. The International Fiction Review,
- Orwell, G. (1934). Burmese Days. Orlando: Harcourt Books.
- Orwell, G. (1936). Shooting an elephant. In M. A. Goldthwaite, J. Bizup, J. Brereton, A. Fernald, & L. Peterson (Eds.) (2016), The Norton reader: An anthology of nonfiction (pp. 750-55). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
- Orwell, G. (1950). Politics and the English language. In M. A. Goldthwaite, J. Bizup, J. Brereton, A. Fernald, & L. Peterson (Eds.) (2016), The Norton reader: An anthology of nonfiction (pp. 510-19). New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
- Orwell, G. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). London: Penguin