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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell
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How does George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" compare to "Politics and the English Language"?

The passage from George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" conforms to the rules laid out in "Politics and the English Language," except for the inclusion of a Latin phrase. In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell says that “the purpose of using 'good' prose is something more than merely making your meaning clear” (emphasis in original). He states that “the writer must have a positive purpose for writing...and he must use words with a positive intention.” In his essay on shooting an elephant, Orwell uses “good” prose to develop his point about British imperialism, with “positive intention.

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In most respects, George Orwell’s writing in “Shooting an Elephant” conforms well to the rules he lays out in "Politics and the English Language." There are notable exceptions, but this feature also is consistent with his observation that he most likely has broken all of his own rules. Furthermore, he published the shooting essay in 1936, ten years before the politics essay, so his observations on language had likely changed in the intervening decade.

In the first two paragraphs of “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell’s narrator seems to address the reader directly and makes direct, straightforward observations. The apparent honesty and candor of the narrator’s approach as well as the plain English that they use seem consistent with Orwell’s rules to use short words if possible, and not to include extraneous words.

The narrator uses active voice much of the time, but begins in passive voice; here, it emphasizes the narrator’s feelings of isolation and victimization: “I was hated by large numbers of people.” Orwell effectively uses passive followed by active voice to create particular contrasts, such as

anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot.

Using passive voice in the opening paragraphs is also consistent with the narrator’s focus on his own thoughts—“I had had to think out my problems.” This usage continues through the essay, as the narrator frequently reflects on his state of mind, but increasingly contrasts those thoughts with the actions that occur. Orwell also repeatedly uses simple verbs, but their very simplicity and the repetition strengthens the point he is making, as with the verb “know":

I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck.

One place where Orwell violates his fifth rule, and does not apparently improve the writing, is by the inclusion of a Latin phrase, “saecula saeculorum.” His intention may be ironic, as it occurs soon after the narrator claims to be “ill-educated.”

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