Explain what Orwell means by, "When the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys."

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is very important to read this quote from Orwell's excellent essay in context and to read what he says in the rest of the paragraph. Orwell uses a simile to describe how the massive crowd witnessing this situation is watching Orwell:

They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realised that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.

This comparison to a conjurer shows that the narrator feels that people expect extraordinary and powerful action from him. He has come to embody the myth of the all-powerful Empire and cannot free himself from the role in which he has been cast. The comparison helps Orwell show the effect of colonialism on those empowered to carry it out.

This pressure sparks off an internal realisation in Orwell - he sees that he is "seemingly the leading actor of the piece", but in reality he is only "an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind." This is when Orwell uses the quote you have highlighted - in making himself the "Great White Man", or "turning tyrant", the white man only gains for himself the illusion of freedom whilst secretly annihilating it as he is forced to play his role before his subjects. Note what Orwell says after your quote:

For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives" and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.

It is this mask of white man's own making that restricts him so utterly, as Orwell found in his dilemma with the elephant.

Hope this gives you a few ideas! Good luck!

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What I would talk about here is how Orwell and others like him would have surrendered their freedom when they become colonizers.  In other words, I would look at things other than the decision to shoot the elephant.

If I were writing this, I would say what you said about going against his morals and shooting the elephant.  But then I would try to look at what this means in the "real" world.  I would say something like "But Orwell is implying that 'turning tyrant' takes away the colonizer's freedom in more important ways.  The colonizer is never able to act simply based on what he wants.  Instead, he always has to be thinking about how his actions will look to the 'natives' and how they will affect the success of colonial rule in general."

I think that colonizers often have to do things they think are wrong.  They may have to punish people harshly for small offenses so that the people don't think the colonizers are "soft."  They may have to punish people for seeking their own freedom (which we usually think is good) because if they don't do it, the colony will fall apart.  In other words, they have to stop thinking about what is morally right and start thinking about what is "good" for the colonial government.

kc4u | Student

Hope you are no longer stuck.Orwell's critique of British Imperialism is an insider's view, a close look at the paradox of  masterdom. Since he was an icon of imperialist supremacy over the enslaved masses, he was imprisoned in his own image, rather the iconic image of a sahib.

Totalitarian rule of any kind gives the ruler a false sense of absolute authority. It kills not only the freedom of the ruled, but may also disable the freedom of the ruler which was Orwell's paradox in the mass-driven foolery of shooting the elephant. The message is palpable: do not try yo rob others of their freedom because if you like to rule a bunch of slaves / fools, you are only making a fool of yourself.

Read the study guide:
Shooting an Elephant

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