Shooting An Elephant Thesis

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Essays present theses. Narrative essays--describing a personal experience or a personally witnessed event--contain theses; they have a purpose and make a point. The thesis in Orwell's narrative essay "Shooting an Elephant" is complex and goes far beyond being a statement of anti-imperialism or a statement of violently ambiguous personal emotions. Orwell's thesis can be paraphrased as stating that imperialism tears apart and out the heart and soul of both peoples--the oppressors' heart and soul and the oppressed's--and is well encapsulated in the following long quotation that both ends his background introduction (necessary to establish time, place and mood) and leads into the heart of his narration: 

All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

First: Some say that narrative essays ought not to have an introduction. However, in a narrative essay like this one, framing the background to establish setting and mood is critical: the suspenseful and emotional impact of the conclusion (of the point) would be weaker--less gripping--without the orientation to how, where, when and why. 

Second: In the quotation above, Orwell (born Eric A. Blair in Mohitari, India, in 1903 to British civil servants) uses a Latin phrase common in religious choral music: in saecula saeculorum, which is a Latin colloquialism (idiomatic expression) that gives the sense of "unto ages of ages." Orwell uses this religious expression to show that, with part of his mind (with "one part of my mind"), he views British imperialism as immutable, as everlasting, as something existing "unto ages of ages," ironically while not even knowing "that the British Empire [was] dying."

Third: The feelings Orwell means in "[f]eelings like these" are all the sets of feelings he is torn by. One feeling is that he hates the empire he serves. Another feeling is that the British Empire is tantamount to a holy thing (as suggested by the religious allusion to in saecula saeculorum) without beginning or end, lasting "unto ages of ages." Imagine the inner conflict from hating that which is felt to be immutable.

Another feeling is that he favors the Burmese impulse toward daily protest of "anti-European feeling" against British occupation: "Theoretically — and secretly, of course — I was all for the Burmese." Another feeling is that he bitterly hates his job in the British police: "I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear." His feeling here is paralleled to the Burmese hatred of the British: "anti-European feeling was very bitter," especially for the "young Buddhist priests [who] were the worst of all."

There was also his feeling of isolation and perplexity. Being young, inexperienced and "ill-educated" (only partially true since he attended the super-elite Eton, although he didn't attend university afterward), he had no one with whom to discuss these feelings and issues, since he and all other British police were restrained behind a veil of silence: "I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East." This silence fueled and agitated his feeling of "rage" against the (understandably) antagonistic Burmese: "my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible."

With his national loyalty severely strained by all his feelings and by the conflict born of the antagonistic relationship between his incompatible feelings, Orwell finds that the incident with the elephant is symbolic and an apt metaphor for the effects of imperialism on sons and daughters of the oppressors as well as on the peoples overwhelmed by oppression. Conflicts, antagonism, contradictions, hatreds and animosities grow, flourish and abound in shocking expression in both oppressor and oppressed under the "British Raj," the empire builder. If we comprehend the total in-built self-destruction of imperialism after reading Orwell's feelings and experience, then we have understood his thesis that imperialism forces people into hatred and hatefulness, into dehumanizing actions and reactions, into a condition of antagonism and perplexity with heart and soul torn apart and out.

Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more....

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Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," is an essay, so it does contain a thesis.  Orwell's thesis is that when a white man becomes a tyrant, it is his own freedom that he loses.

In the essay, Orwell demonstrates how he loses his freedom to behave intelligently and morally.  He does not want to needlessly kill the elephant, and he strongly suspects that the young elephant's must is waning.  The elephant is not in proximity to any people and appears to have settled down.  The animal is valuable to its owner and cannot really be blamed for the damage it's done.

It is unreasonable to kill the creature needlessly.  But Orwell has no choice.  He is in a position of authority over the local people and cannot allow himself to be seen as hesitant or weak or foolish.  Because of his position as "tyrant," he must kill the elephant. 

As a representative of the tyrannical colonial power, England, he has no choice.  As a white man who has become a tyrant in Burma, he has lost his own freedom. 

Though no records exist of Orwell ever having shot an elephant, and though some commentators have speculated that Orwell fudged a little on the details, "Shooting an Elephant" was intended as a nonfiction essay and continues to be regarded as such.  It is a powerful indictment of the colonial system that Orwell, regrettably he himself says, was a part of. 

Incidentally, the essay reveals another byproduct of colonialism--Orwell's hatred of a people that he otherwise would have felt no disdain for.  In response to the Burmese resentment of him, he develops a strong dislike for them.

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susan3smith | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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I'm assuming that you mean theme rather than thesis.  One these of Orwell's short story "Shooting an Elephant" is the effect of the masses on the individual.  The narrator of the story shoots and kills an elephant that is no no longer dangerous to the Burmese village.  He kills the elephant because he does not want to appear a fool in front of a crowd of Burmese, numbering in the thousands. 

If you dig a little deeper, though, you will see that Orwell is showing us the effects of imperialism.  When a powerful nation exploits the people of another country, the resulting tension causes everyone to become somewhat savage.  The narrator is a British police officer, and even though he sympathicizes with the plight of the Burmese, he despises their contempt for him, as a representative of the British empire. 

These themes can be turned into strong thesis statements for an essay. 

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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To me, the thesis and main point of Orwell's essay is that imperialism is bad.  He argues that it is bad for the ruling people and he argues that it is bad for the people who are ruled.

Orwell shows in the beginning of the essay how colonialism degrades the colonized people.  They come to hate the colonizers so much that they will spit on them out of spite whenever they get the chance.  Orwell feels that this sort of fairly inhuman behavior would not happen without colonialism.

Orwell also shows that the colonizers come to hate the people they rule.  They hate them, in part, because the people force the colonizers to do things (like shooting the elephant) that they do not want to do.

Imperialism, to Orwell, causes both the rulers and the ruled to lose their dignity and their integrity.

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clane | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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Orwell wrote this essay because he wanted to express his distaste for imperialism which he grew up in the face of. He had strong ties to India, his birthplace, even though he grew up in Britain. He actually served as an Imperialist Police Office in the 1920s as well so he saw first hand the abuse that they received from people like the Burmese. "I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing... I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British." His main thesis in writing the essay then was more of an appeal to the British to stop enforcing these strict imperial laws and turn away from colonialism in an effort to salvage what was left of their freedom as the British. Orwell writes, "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys," which is probably the clearest statement of how he feels about British imperialism. We see the loss of freedom when he is forced to shoot the elephant for the Burmese people even though he doesn't personally think it's necessary. He has lost his freedom to think for himself as his hand is pushed by those who are being tyrannized.

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sagetrieb | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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Because “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell is an essay, it contains its own thesis, which is an argument about the nature of imperialism. This thesis does not appear in just one sentence of the essay, but various passages contain it, with the rest of the essay—the story of shooting the elephant—providing an example to “prove” its truth. The argument about imperialism that is central to “Shooting an Elephant” can be summarized something like this: Imperialism affects the oppressed as well as the oppressor. Because it is an immoral relationship of power, it compels the oppressor to act immorally to keep up appearances that he is right. The narrator realizes that the British Raj which he serves is “an unbreakable tyranny” yet despises the people he oppresses for allowing him to do so. On the one hand he is regarded as a wise ruler, but on the other he knows he is wrong in what he does but must behave in such a way to disquise this. As a result, he finds himself doing whatever he must do, which in this case is to kill the elephant, to “avoid looking [the] fool” that he knows he is for representing the powers of imperialism.

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bmadnick | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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A thesis statement is developed from a theme, a conflict, or other literary elements of a written work. A thesis statement is the general topic of an essay. You then use a specific piece of literature to write about that general topic. A theme is the author's message about life, people, or the human condition. A piece of literature can have more than one theme, even though it usually has a main theme.

The most obvious theme in Shooting an Elephant deals with the culture clash between the British and the Burmese, and the prejudice and lack of tolerance that results from this culture clash. The Burmese hate the British for trying to impose their rule on them. The British look down on the Burmese, feeling they are inferior. Now, you can write a thesis statement based on this theme. One suggestion is, "The clash of cultures can result in prejudice and intolerance in a society." You would then use specific examples from Shooting an Elephant to show how this is true.

If you go to the enotes link of Shooting an Elephant, you will find some more ideas for thesis statements. But remember, a thesis statement can be developed from the conflict(s), the setting, the irony, or any other literary element of a piece of literature.

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epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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anjames1989,

Orwell's widely anthologized non-fiction essay "Shooting an Elephant" has an implied thesis: “Imperialistic rulers must behave so as not to lose face or power over the populace, even if it means doing something against their better judgment.”

Orwell felt pressured by the people, almost overwhelmed by their power over him through their mere presence. In theory, he explains at the start of the selection, he “was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” (2). But, in reality, Orwell says, he felt the common people of the country were “evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible” (2).

During the shooting incident the people were “happy and excited,” and they watched him “as they would a conjurer about to perform a trick.” He resentfully saw himself as having to spend his life “trying to impress the ‘natives’” (7). He reports later that, as he fired a shot, the crowd emitted a “devilish roar of glee” (11). His choice of words shows that he resented and disliked the Burmese.

Orwell shoots the elephant because the two thousand native people standing behind him expect him to. They want vengeance for the man it killed, the meat the carcass will provide, and the entertainment of watching the shooting. “The people expected it of me and I had got to do it” (7), he writes. There is an implication that if he decided not to shoot the elephant, both he and the British empire would suffer a loss of prestige, but the main concern in Orwell’s mind is the “long struggle not to be laughed at” (7). He is even afraid to “test” the animal’s mood by going closer for fear it might attack and kill him before he could shoot, thus giving the crowd a sight it would enjoy as much as the slaughter of the beast.

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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