George Orwell immediately begins the essay by first claiming his perspective on British Imperialism. He claims that it is evil and he is fully against the oppressors, the British. Though he is a British officer himself at the time in Burma, he feels a certain hatred and guilt towards himself, his empire, and the “evil-spirited little beasts,” the Burma people. In the essay he writes not just about his personal experience with the elephant but how metaphorical the experience is to Imperialism and his views on the matter. Orwell’s feelings are the hostile feelings toward the British, Imperialism, and Britain’s justification for their actions in taking over Burma.
The entire mood of the essay is set when Orwell illustrates the setting to be a “cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginnings of the rains.” This in turn sets the tone of Orwell’s speech to be weak and discomforting. He already has established the fact that his character is weak when he introduces the Burma people and how they laugh and mock him, the British officer. The build-up of finding the elephant is a metaphor itself showing the destructive power of imperialism: the elephant’s rampaging spree destroying homes, food shelves, and even killing a man whom Orwell described to have an expression of unendurable agony. Upon finally finding the elephant, Orwell says “I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him.” But when he lays eyes at the huge mass of people behind him he changes his stance to “…but I did not want to shoot the elephant.” Orwell then repeatedly states how immoral and guilty it is to shoot the elephant. Despite the many reasons to not shoot the elephant such as how it is worth more alive rather than dead, or how he is a “poor shot,” he ultimately falls into the expectations of the Burma people. Against his will and moral belief he decides to kill the elephant.
Orwell uses the death of the elephant as another metaphor of British Imperialism in Burma. On a side-note, Burma was a free kingdom until British expansion came in. There were three wars between the British oppressors and the Burmese. There was the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, and then the second in 1852. Finally the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 was when the British finally took on total control of Burma. In George Orwell’s essay, he writes “When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick…I fired again into the same spot…I fired a third time. That was the shot that did it for him.” Three wars, three shots. The elephant is a symbol of Burma and it’s struggle to remain alive. Finally staying down after the third shot the elephant still lives, just as the Burmese people are still there but with less strength and hope after the wars. They are now controlled by the British. It can also be looked upon that the elephant’s death was a metaphor for the decline of British rule in Burma too and how they slowly went away or died off. There is a sense of guilt Orwell gives when he mentions seeing the elephant laying there “powerless to move and yet powerless to die.” As some Britians became doubtful of their right to rule others, both sides began to feel hatred, and resentment toward the British Empire. Orwell made himself believe that he was right and it was legal to kill the elephant, by making ideas to justify what he had done, by stating “legally I did the right thing, a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it.” Orwell even shows a different light when he admits he is glad the villager was killed in the attack because legally that too justifies what he has done. But still he knows the truth to be false. The elephant could have been saved without unnecessary harm but Orwell chose the latter.
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Orwell uses other metaphors such as when he compares himself to being a magician about to perform a trick, or as being a lead actor in a piece, and even an absurd puppet, a posing dummy, and to be wearing a mask. Holding the “magic rifle” the Burmans of course expected him to kill the elephant. Even being a white man, the authority, it was even more expected. It is then Orwell claims he realizes the true position of whites in the East and how Imperialism hurts not only the victims but the oppressors. Orwell explains how when the white man turns tyrant it is their own freedom they destroy. Being the white man, Orwell says, they constantly must impress the natives and do what the natives expect of them. The natives have the control of the white man. Thus Orwell must complete his role, what is expected of him, and do definite things. Orwell realizes that throughout his entire rule in Burma he is actually the victim of the Burmese, and it is their expectations of what he should do with his power that force him to do what they want.
Orwell mentioned himself to be like an actor in a play. The Burman crowd behind him, the audience. He uses this image again later on when finally takes aim for the elephant’s head. He describes the feeling to be like theatre curtains finally opening to a waiting spectators. He makes many comparisons that demonstrate his weakness in character. He is puppet being controlled. He is forced to wear a mask constantly and play the role of a powerful white man. Orwell gives many small examples that hint the double-edged sword factor of imperialism and how it is overall bad for everyone.
George Orwell uses his personal experience with a moral dilemma to convey to the reader the evils which result from colonial politics and imperialism. He blends his own personal thoughts and opinion into his story. Numerous times it can be seen he puts his personal commentary on some points in the story such as when he described how a dead man does not look peaceful or even the entire sequence when he contemplated on whether to shoot the elephant or not. Orwell also uses some connotations and denotations in the essay. For example he refers to the large crowd of people behind him as “an army of people.” Not only does army make the reader think of a large crowd but to be military-like and force Orwell to change his actions.
George Orwell’s Shooting An Elephant is a great essay combining personal experience and political opinion. The transitions he makes between narration and the actual story is so subtle the flow of the essay is easy to read. More than just falling into peer-pressure, Orwell proclaims what a dilemma it is when people expect groups of people to do certain things and do certain actions. Humans can be influenced so easily. And he shows how the influences of Imperialism harm both sides. Orwell demonstrates this perfectly by turning himself, who is supposed to be the higher power, into the victim! Truly it is a tragedy, Orwell implies, how human beings will do certain things just to “avoid looking a fool.”
By: Andrew Browning