The British Empire and Nationalism
‘‘The City of London,’’ writes Paul Johnson in Modern Times, ‘‘was incapable of planning anything, let alone a world-wide conspiracy; it simply followed what it imagined (often wrongly) to be its short-term interests, on a day-to-day basis.’’ Johnson refers to the British Empire, with its far- flung dominions, and to the widespread contemporary idea that the age of imperialism resulted from the malicious foresight of evil powers. Johnson argues instead the great empires of Britain, France, and the Netherlands expanded through a series of unplanned acquisitions, burdening the home country with moral guilt and monetary debt, and dissolving as spontaneously as they formed. Something of Johnson’s analysis seems to inform ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ with its air of absurdity and directionlessness. If anyone knew about the tedious minutiae of imperial administration, it was George Orwell, who had been born in India and who served in Burma (1922-27) as a colonial policeman.
Orwell arrived at a time when Burmese native interests began to assert themselves against British rule (the British had been in Burma since 1824, when they defeated a Burmese warlord, Maha Bandula, who aggressively opposed British interests in Bengal). Strikes organized by the Young Buddhists paralyzed the administrative center of Rangoon; the antimodern Sayan San movement gained strength in the countryside (and...
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Point of View
In ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ Orwell employs a casually assumed first-person point of view; what readers know of the event described in the story, they know primarily from the narrator’s direct and apparently candid divulgence. Couching the tale in the first person enables Orwell to engage in the rhythm of meditation and action without it seeming forced; because the narrator is reminiscing about the event, which occurred some time in the past, his interweaving of essayistic reflections with the main action strikes the reader as quite natural. The use of reminiscence has a further consequence, that of the splitting off of the narrator as narrator from the narrator as agent of an action. The narrator not only directly reports the impressions and thoughts that he experienced at the time of the elephant episode; he also imposes his present, removed, retrospective analysis on the impressions and thoughts of that time. (This is one of the ways in which readers know that the narrator is a man of conscience.) Despite the first-person point of view, the perspectives of others—the Burmese—also come through, since the narrators reports them frankly.
The setting is colonial Burma, part of the British Empire, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s; specifically, Orwell sets the story in a district town called Moulmein. Few British are present compared to the numerous local people, yet the British rule,...
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: High-water mark of the British Empire. Burma is one of the Empire’s most productive colonies. Also an important decade for incipient independence movements, like those of Nehru’s Congress Party in India and the various anti- British movements in Burma itself.
1990s: Burma achieved independence in 1948 and almost immediately fell into a succession of internal rebellions. In the 1990s the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma is ruled by a repressive military dictatorship.
1930s: Spain breaks out in civil war in 1936 (Orwell fights); Germany and Austria very nearly go to war in the same year. Japan continues its campaign in China, where it invaded, with the aim of establishing colonies, in 1931. Showtrials begin in the Soviet Union.
1990s: The disappearance of European empires, all of them dissolved in the decade after World War Two, neither leads to prosperity in former colonies nor insures against the oppression of ethnic or other minorities, as the continuing plight of the Third World demonstrates. Ethnic disputes abound in all regions of the world in the last decade of the twentieth century.
1930s: British writer Rudyard Kipling, known for his poems and stories of colonial India and Burma, dies. Kipling’s stories in many ways defined the ‘‘conservative’’ attitude toward empire, that the overseas colonies were Britain’s obligatory burden and that they...
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Topics for Further Study
The theme of sacrifice in ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ is also evident in Orwell’s essay ‘‘A Hanging.’’ Read ‘‘A Hanging’’ and compare it with ‘‘Shooting an Elephant.’’ What elements do the two pieces have in common? What fundamental human traits do they explore?
The narrator of ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ is an agent of the British Empire and is thus implicated in the ‘‘dirty business’’ of British imperial affairs. He is also a man of conscience. Discuss the narrator’s guilt. To what extent should he be condemned for participating in the shooting of the elephant? To what extent should he be vindicated for identifying the intricacies of the situation?
Despite being an agent of the British Empire, the narrator of ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ deplores his role in the business of imperial colonization. Contrast this attitude with that of the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Is it possibly to theorize about the respective attitudes of the two authors toward colonization from their literary works?
‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ concerns mob behavior. Think of some other instances of mob behavior, either from real-life stories or works of fiction. Are the actions of the mob similar to those in Orwell’s account? Discuss the human tendency for people to resent the differences of others. How does this resentment lead to conflict and violence?
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What Do I Read Next?
The essay ‘‘Such, Such were the Joys . . .’’ is an autobiographical account of Orwell’s years in the bleak and unsympathetic environment of an English boarding school. This essay is included in George Orwell: A Collection of Essays, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.
Orwell’s essay ‘‘England Your England,’’ written during the Blitz (the German saturation bombing campaign of London in 1941), is an assessment of British character in its moment of greatest trial. See George Orwell: A Collection of Essays, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.
In 1939, Orwell wrote an essay called ‘‘Boy’s Weeklies,’’ which devotes itself with gusto and approval to the slew of pulp magazines which, in the first half of the twentieth century, especially catered to an audience of literate adolescent males. Orwell had himself been a reader of the weeklies. See George Orwell: A Collection of Essays, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.
In ‘‘Reflections on Gandhi’’ (1949), another essay, Orwell returns to the topic of the British Empire, which he earlier treated in ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ to which the meditation on Gandhi is therefore an important companion piece. See George Orwell: A Collection of Essays, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.
Michael Shelden’s Orwell: The Authorized Biography is an extremely well researched and lively account of Orwell’s life and career....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Davison, Peter. George Orwell: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.
Eagleton, Terry. ‘‘Orwell and the Lower Middle Class Novel.’’ In Bernard Oldsey and Joseph Browne, editors, Critical Essays on George Orwell. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986.
Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Johnson, Paul. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (RevisedEdition). New York: Harper & Row, 1991. 153, 154-55.
Kogan, Steve. ‘‘In Celebration of George Orwell.’’ Academic Questions. Vol. 10, No. 1. 13-30.
Muggeridge, Malcolm. Burmese Days. In Harold Bloom, editor, George Orwell: Modern Critical Views, New York: Chelsea House, 1987.23.
Hitchens, Christopher, and Norman Podhoretz. ‘‘An Exchange on Orwell.’’ Harper's Vol. 266, No 1593, February 1983, pp. 56-8. Hitchens responds to an earlier essay by Podhoretz (see below) speculating that had he lived, Orwell would have become a political neoconservative. Hitchens questions several of Podhoretz's contentions regardingOrwell's political attitudes. He especially attacks Podhoretz's contention that Owell maintained a Leftist stance primarily to give weight to his criticism of left-wing politics. Podhoretz responds with selected quotations from Orwell's works to support his contentions....
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Bowker, Gordon. George Orwell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Connelly, Mark. The Diminished Self: Orwell and the Loss of Freedom. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1987.
Cushman, Thomas, and John Rodden, eds. George Orwell: Into the Twenty-first Century. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2004.
Gardner, Averil. George Orwell. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Hunter, Lynette. George Orwell: The Search for a Voice. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1984.
Jensen, Ejner J., ed. The Future of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
Muller, Gilbert H. Major Modern Essayists. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1991.
Taylor, D. J. Orwell: The Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2003.
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