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George Orwell, in his essay about his unfortunate experience as a colonial police officer in Burma, Shooting an Elephant, is very precise in his use of language. An indictment of the dehumanizing effects of British imperialism on the colonizers as well as on those whose land is being occupied, Shooting an Elephant is both a mea culpa regarding the unnecessary death of the elephant, and a scathing critique of the corrosive effects of British foreign policy on master and servant alike.
Orwell’s opening sentence sets the tone for what follows with this self-deprecating observation:
“. . . I was hated by large numbers of people--the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”
Orwell’s essay is a very straight-forward description of the indignities heaped upon the British and Burmese alike, and drips with bitterness from having been placed in such a situation where he was so loathed by the indigenous population as a representative of the foreign imperialists. Referring to the Buddhist priests who would not shy away from open expressions of disdain for the British, Orwell describes these living symbols of piety and dignity as follows:
“There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.”
Shooting an Elephant is replete with instances of the author’s bitterness at having to play a role, no matter how small, in this morally degrading process. Imperialism, he has come to realize, is a cancer that is eating away at Britain’s soul, and the story he tells about the elephant he didn’t want to kill but killed anyway rather than lose face among his British colleagues while Britain lost faith among those it ruled is certainly a pitiful admission of moral cowardice. In a particularly graphic passage, Orwell vents regarding his situation and the ramifications of Britain’s actions for both sides in this geopolitical equation:
“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 lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos--all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But 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. 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.”
Orwell’s prescience regarding the eventual emergence of global powers to supplant the British Empire aside, his use of syntax is most pronounced in those sentences in which he wishes to convey with the utmost gravity the dehumanizing and brutal nature of British imperialism. Note in the paragraph above the structure of these sentences:
“The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages . . .the scarred buttocks of the men who had been bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me . . .”;
“I was young and ill-educated . . .”
“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 young empires that are going to supplant it.”
These are eminently heart-felt sentiments born of an experience the author would like to erase from his memory but knows he never will. He has personalized the British experience in Southeast Asia while illuminating the manner in which his own participation symbolized the much greater evils perpetrated out of a misbegotten notion of racial superiority. In transitioning from his screed against British imperialism to the specific event that helped codify in his mind the immorality of his country’s policies, Orwell writes of the transcendent moment,
“One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism--the real motives for which despotic governments act.”
Not only has Orwell transitioned from macro to micro – from big picture to isolated event that will serve as a metaphor for the big picture – he has also adjusted his syntax from emphasizing his angry denunciations of British policies to a more simplified, straightforward description of the event in question – the quandary surrounding a rogue elephant (that Orwell points out was actually quite tame) and the expectation from Burmese and fellow-British and Burmese police officers alike that he will shoot the elephant. The transition is abrupt and very prominent. Shooting an Elephant is two essays: a bitter denunciation of imperialism, and a story about an elephant and his professional responsibility with respect to its capture and murder. Orwell’s use of syntax transitions with the story’s shift from one focus to another.
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