Shooting an Elephant : Critical Analysis or Orwell’s View on Imperialism

Shooting an Elephant : Critical Analysis or Orwell's View on Imperialism
Shooting an Elephant as a Postcolonial Essay

Louis Cazamian in A History
of English Literature
declares George Orwell’s work as a whole to be “the
citizen’s manifesto against the powers that be”
. Even from his youth,
Orwell rejected many of the accepted social and political conventions, and his
novels and essays clearly reveal him as a non-conformist. In all his novels and
in many of his essays, his strongly dissenting voice can be clearly heard. And
though Shooting an Elephant is a narrative essay, it gives us a fairly clear
idea of Orwell’s view of British imperialist domination in the East.

Even from the start of his career as a police officer
in British occupied Burma, Orwell was not favourably disposed to the British
imperialist policy. He had a genuine sympathy for the oppressed native people,
and he hated himself for being a tool of imperialist domination. But even so,
he did not quite realise how utterly futile was the white man’s domination in
the East. This he came to realise through an experience which has been
described in his essay Shooting an Elephant.

The author was then a sub-divisional police officer in
Moulmein. a township in Lower Burma. One morning, he received the news that an
elephant, under the attack of ‘must’ had broken its chained was ravaging the
bazaar area. So he started out with his light rifle to see what the matter was.
On his way, he received a lot of conflicting reports on the behaviour of the
elephant. Finally he reached the locality where the animal had been last seen.
Then the veils of a woman attracted his attention. As he went forward the dead
body of a black Dravidian coolie came into his view. He had been trampled to
death by the elephant. At once the author sent an orderly who fetched an
elephant rifle for him. At the sight of this weapon, the people who had
gathered there became greatly excited because they now took it for granted that
the sahib was surely going to shoot the elephant. But, till that moment, the
author did not have the slightest intention of killing the elephant.

As he went a little farther, he saw the elephant in a
paddy field. It looked peaceful enough, and the author felt there was no reason
for killing it unless it turned savage again. At this moment, he turned round
and saw that a huge crowd of natives had followed at his heels. Looking at
their eager, expectant faces, he suddenly realised the absolute helplessness of
his position. He felt that, in spite of all his reluctance, he would have to
shoot the elephant, after all. For, in that critical situation, he was expected
to live up to the image of the white men in the colonies-a man of
extra-ordinary strength, courage and determination, who must remain unmoved in
the face of every crisis. Thus, he was not free to act according to the
dictates of his own conscience. He was a mere puppet driven by the will and
expectation of the thousands of natives surrounding him. At the moment of
crisis, he realised the bitter truth : “when the white man turns tyrant it
is his own freedom that he destroys.” Thus, from his own experience, he
realised that the white man’s superiority over the natives was but a hollow
myth with no substance at all.

The essay starts with a reference to the strained
relations between the ruler and the ruled in Moulmein, a township in Lower
Burma. Anti-European feelings ran high among the native people though they did
not have the courage to rise in open rebellion against British domination. So
their hatred of the white man found expression through devious ways. They never
missed an opportunity of baiting white men or jeering at them. They would even
try to inflict injuries on white men whenever they could do it with impunity,
As a police officer, the author was an obvious target of such petty attacks and
insults. Sometimes the author felt tempted to have his revenge on these jeering
“devils’, but his better reason always prevailed. He rightly recognized
such feelings as the ‘normal by-products’ of imperialism and he rather hated
himself for serving a power that oppressed people and held them in subjection.

But there are, in this
essay, far more overt references to the evils of imperialism. As a police
officer in Burma he had seen ‘the dirty work of Empire at close quarters’. He
refers to the lock-ups as
‘stinking cages’
in which native prisoners were huddled like cattle, He has a vivid memory of
the ‘cowed faces’ of long-term convicts and the ‘scarred buttocks’ of men who
had been flogged with bamboos.

But his greatest accusation against imperialism is of
a radically different nature. In this essay he asserts that the shooting of the
elephant gave him a better glimpse of the real nature of imperialism than he
ever had before. It is this incident that opened his eyes to the ‘hollowness,
the futility of the white man’s domination in the East’. In order to make its
domination safe and secure, imperialism has to build up a highly inflated image
of the white man. Thus he loses his freedom of action. He must not act according
to the dictates of his conscience; he must act in strict conformity with the
codes of conduct established by imperialism. The author had shot the elephant
much against his will. While, apparently, the author was the leading actor of
the piece in reality he was ‘an absurd puppet’ driven by the will of the crowd
that surrounded him. Thus, imperialism harms and oppresses not only the
subjugated people; it also harms its own servants by subjecting them to a
process of moral and psychological degeneration.

Even the advocates of imperialism would find it
difficult not to agree with Orwell’s view of its harmful effects. History has
confirmed his views even to the last detail.

And the history of our country under the British rule
bears ample evidence to the evils of imperialist domination. As to the evil
effects of imperialism, Orwell’s views have been confirmed by many white men
who have served in the colonies.

But it would be going rather
too far to describe Shooting an Elephant as ‘a critique of imperialism’. Orwell’s
primary aim in this essay was to describe an incident which had made deep and
lasting impression on his mind. The views on imperialism expressed here are but
incidental to the main theme of the essay. So it would be more pertinent to
describe Shooting an Elephant as a narrative essay incorporating certain
relevant criticism of imperialist domination in the East.
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