According to George Orwell, how does "Shooting an Elephant" show his central claim that imperialism is evil? How does telling the story make it more powerful than a more standard essay on that...

According to George Orwell, how does "Shooting an Elephant" show his central claim that imperialism is evil? How does telling the story make it more powerful than a more standard essay on that subject? Why?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In writing "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell was illustrating the dehumanizing nature of imperialism and the morally corrosive effect it had on the perpetrators as well. Early in his essay, Orwell, ruminating on his days as a colonial police officer in British-ruled Burma (today known as Myanmar), references the deleterious implications for the conquerors as well as for the vanquished of colonialism, noting that “the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves.”  "Shooting an Elephant," of course, is about the time his responsibilities as an official of the British Empire forced him to continue to reconsider Britain’s role in what would become known as “the Third World.” The incident portrayed in this essay did not precipitate a change of heart; rather, it reaffirmed the incompatibility of Western enlightenment and imperialism – a sentiment sharply at odds with the fundamental misconception regarding weaker foreign nations that drove the relentless efforts at empire-building that characterized British foreign policy for many decades.  Orwell’s crisis of conscience was exemplified in this story, and he left no doubt regarding his evolving perceptions of the situation confronting him and the nation he represented:

“. . .at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lockups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos—all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.”

Orwell grew to view his country’s approach to the less-developed world as essentially evil because of the damage it did to both sides of the equation.  A rogue elephant has caused mayhem and death and, as a colonial police officer, Orwell was expected to kill the source of this consternation, the elephant in question.  As thousands of Burmese gather around, Orwell, armed with his rifle, develops the sense that, warranted or not, he must shoot the formerly-marauding but now-tranquil animal. As he wrote of this scene, “Suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it.”  The incident with the elephant came to serve as a metaphor for the colonial experience, with Orwell at the center of a macabre exercise in public relations in which he was no longer the source of authority.  He now existed to serve the will of the masses arrayed around him.  Summarizing the incongruity of the colonial experience, he wrote:

“Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

Orwell’s essay exudes a sense of moral authority that might otherwise be lacking precisely because it is a first-person account emanating from the conscience of one who served the Empire in all its glory.  He has observed for himself the moral degradation that accompanied the forced occupation of another nation. His short, descriptive autobiographical essay serves as a first-hand examination of the effects of imperialism on those sent to administer the Empire and enforce its inherently racist and ultimately counterproductive edicts. Whether Orwell’s evolving perceptions were representative of the British is doubtful given the history of post-World War II decolonization, but he did provide a crucial glimpse into the soul of one official who has seen too much and no longer believes in his mission.

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