In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell observes that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys," and that "he wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it."  Consider the...

In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell observes that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys," and that "he wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it."  Consider the implications of these statements concerning human nature.

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skyey-i | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

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To the Burmese, the author George Orwell is a British police officer, a sahib, a white man, who embodies tyranny and oppression of the mighty British Empire.  On the other hand, Orwell as an individual deplores the oppressive and tyrannical British rule and sympathizes with the poor Burmese. The complexities of his situation reveal to him how helpless he is despite being a police officer.

The metaphor and paradox explained in the quoted lines best explain the predicament of Orwell.

The autobiographical account presents a complex situation Orwell faces in Burma. The once rampaging elephant is no longer savage and everybody can see that it’s peacefully grazing in the field. The author is holding an elephant gun and a massive crowd of over two thousand Burmese surrounds him expecting to see him fire a shot at the animal. He is completely reluctant to injure the large animal. But the problem is he wears a mask, one that represents the oppressive, powerful and invincible British Empire. If he backs off, he loses honor and makes a fool of himself. Against his wishes, helplessly he guns down the elephant.

In this way, the idea embodied in the paradoxical metaphor of the face growing up to fit the mask best applies to his situation. He does so out of helplessness, merely to look like a real sahib. He feels like a puppet manipulated by the forces he can’t control despite being at the helm of the affairs. The mask represents Orwell as a police officer who is supposed to be defiant, resolute, strong and brave, while the face stands for Orwell as an individual who has his own perspectives and sensitivities. The force that draws the face towards the mask is irresistible and thus Orwell as an individual feels enslaved and powerless and kills the elephant against his wishes.

It implies that human nature is a complex issue. Not only one’s appearance, even one’s action may belie one’s true character. Just imagine if you were one of the thousands who had gathered to witness the shooting of the elephant, what would be your opinion of the police officer? Whatever it might be, at least you would never even think that the officer was a kind-hearted man who had actually wished to return without even disturbing the silent elephant.

Besides, decision making can be a very arduous task at times. The complexity of the situation may compel us to make decisions that may be completely against our opinion or wish. It may be merely to keep up face or to satisfy somebody who doesn’t really matter at all.

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