Shooting an Elephant as a Narrative Essay
It would be quite pertinent to describe Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant as a narrative essay with a difference. It is not a formal essay. It has greater affinities with that kind of essay which we call ‘personal’ and which had been characterised by Dr. Johnson as ‘a loose sally of the mind.’ True that, Shooting an Elephant differs in its tone and approach from the essays by Montaigne and Charles Lamb and yet. Orwell’s essay has something strongly personal about it. Far from being a mere narration of an incident, it is an intensely personal view of an extraordinary situation.
While reading the essay, we see everything through the eyes of the author and our feelings and reactions are largely controlled and guided by the author’s views and opinions. For his narration of the incident is now and then punctuated with authorial comments which introduces an element of drama into the narrative. Thus the narrative in Shooting an Elephant is enlivened with an inner drama of absorbing psychological interest. Thus in this wonderful narrative, what happens in the outside world is very effectively completed by the drama of tension that takes place on the psychological plane.
The author was serving as a sub-divisional police officer in the township of Moulmein in Lower Burma. Anti-European feelings ran high among the natives, and so the prevailing socio-political atmosphere was not at all conducive to the job of a British police officer. Under these circumstances, the author was informed one morning that an elephant under the attack of ‘must’, had broken its chain and was ravaging the bazaar area. When the author reached the spot, he found that a black collie had been trampled to death by the elephant, Proceeding a little farther he saw the elephant in a paddy field. It was stuffing bunches of grass into its mouth and looked peaceful enough. The author decided that there was no reason for his shooting the elephant.
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Then he looked round and the inner drama of psychological tension started right from that moment. For, he looked 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 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 man in the colonies-a man of extraordinary strength, courage and determination, who must remain unmoved in the face of every crisis. Those thousands of natives’ who surrounded him had seen the rifle in his hand, and they took it for granted that he was going to shoot the elephant. If he retreated now without shooting the animal, his conduct would be viewed by the natives as a singular act of cowardice on the part of white men. Such an act would be sure to lower the prestige not only of the author but of every white man in the colonies.
At this moment of crisis, the author realised the utter hollowness of the white man’s domination in the East. He was not free to act according to the dictates of his own conscience, but was driven on, much like a puppet, by the will and expectations of the natives. So, retreat was impossible for him now, unless he was prepared to be laughed and jeered at by the thousands of natives who surrounded him. A bitter realisation now dawned on him that the white man’s life in the East was ‘one long struggle not to be laughed at’, and he would now have to shoot the elephant precisely to avoid that ignominy. So, in order to avoid looking a fool and being jeered at by the natives, the author finally shot the elephant and killed it.
It is perhaps pointless to ask which of these two dramas-the inner and the outer, is more interesting or more significant than the other. They complement each other and enhance each other’s appeal. There could, of course, be no inner drama without the incident of the shooting. But the outer drama would have lost much of its appeal unless it was strengthened and enlivened by the inner drama of psychological pressure tension.
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