How does this essay illuminate imperialism?"On Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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George Orwell's essay, "On Shooting an Elephant," illuminates the paradox of imperialsim.  For, as he writes,

When the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys.

As Orwell relates the incident involving an elephant about which he is called upon to shoot because it had broken its chain and caused havoc.  The elephant now has settled down and is no longer in proximity of the area.  But, it is witnessed that the elephant has killed a man, so Orwell calls for an elephant rifle and cartridges.  As he prepares to deal with the situation, Orwell realizes that he is not thinking

particularly of my own skin, only of the watchful yellow faces behind...The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on, and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill....That would never do.

With all the Burmese watching him, Orwell feels that as a representative of the colonial government, he must act as such and kill the elephant; that is, in his role as imperialist, he has forfeited his own freedom and must act tyrannically. As the Burmese watch him, Orwell even grows to disdain them for their presence which forces him to the action of killing the elephant.  After he does shoot the elephant, Orwell wonders whether any of the others "grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool." This is the paradox of imperialism.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I am not exactly sure what you mean by "illuminate" here.  I wonder if you are asking what this essay is showing us about imperialism.  If so, I would say that it is showing us that imperialism takes away the dignity and the free will of the people who are running the colony.

In this story, Orwell would rather not shoot the elephant.  Even so, he is forced to do so (to go against his ideals and his best judgement) because of what the natives expect of him.

To me, this is a microcosm of what imperialism does to the imperial power as a whole.  When a country takes over another country, it must act in ways that are meant to maintain control of that other country.  It must do this even if those actions go against its usual values (like when the US suppressed Filipino independence fighters in the early 1900s).  Imperialism, therefore, traps the imperial power.  It forces that power to act in ways it does not really want to act, all in order for it to maintain its power.

epollock's profile pic

epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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The first two paragraphs introduce us to the alien, far-off world where the narrative took place. In addition to setting the scene, Orwell explains what he was doing in Burma and, more importantly, gives us an emotional perspective from which to view the event. We learn in a general way about the bitterness between the colonialists and the native inhabitants and about the psychological effect his job as a policeman had on him. His confession that he was “young and ill-educated” and not even aware the British Empire was collapsing helps us feel empathy for him in the incident that follows.

Without this information, we might not be willing to forgive him the shooting of the elephant or its horrible death, or comprehend the sense of victimization he felt despite his position as an “authority.”

Despotic governments result from the need to maintain power over subtly resistant people; such a government can rule only by fulfilling the people’s expectations and responding to every crisis with the expected force. Orwell points to the irony that he stood armed in front of an unarmed crowd, yet he was powerless to do as he wished or as his judgment told him. Instead, he felt himself “an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind” (7).

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