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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell
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What is an example of a close reading for Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

A close reading of a text closely examines the word choices and literary devices used by an author.

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A close reading of a text closely examines the word choices and literary devices used by an author. I will pick a passage of "Shooting an Elephant " and get you started on a close reading of it. Please note too what close reading is not--it looks only at...

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A close reading of a text closely examines the word choices and literary devices used by an author. I will pick a passage of "Shooting an Elephant" and get you started on a close reading of it. Please note too what close reading is not--it looks only at the words on the page and does not bring in biographical material about the author.

In the following passage, Orwell is trying to convey some of the conflicted feelings experienced by a young imperial police officer in the British colony of Burma. We will look at some of the techniques Orwell uses to make his point:

All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal byproducts of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

First, the speaker is communicating that he feels trapped: he hates the British empire but he also hates the way the Burmese treat him. He conveys these dual feelings by using parallelism, which is to employ a similar grammatical structure in two clauses: "My hatred of the empire" is paralleled by "my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts," underscoring the anger the narrator feels at both his native country and his host country. Further, referring to the Burmese as "evil-spirited little beasts" conveys how these colonized people are dehumanized by the empire.

An either/or construction continues to communicate conflict in this passage, for the speaker describes having two parts to his mind that are at war with each other. "With one part" of his mind he despises the British Raj (ruling government in India/Burma) and "with another part" he wants to kill the Burmese.

We can also note that Orwell uses the Latin term "saecula saeculorum," which means "unto the ages of ages," to describe his feeling that the British will rule in the Indian sub-continent forever. A close reading would question why Orwell would use the Latin phrase. Is it because he wants to convey to his audience that his speaker isn't all that "ill educated?" Or could it be that a Latin phrase from thousands of years past conveys more strongly than English the sense of how strong the British grip is on Burma?

Finally, Orwell uses a sentence that packs a very powerful punch: he thinks that "the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts." The sentence is powerful because it is surprising: who could want to kill a Buddhist priest? Also the use of alliteration—putting words with the same beginning consonant close together—adds to the power of the sentence, calling attention to words "bayonet" and "Buddhist" and "greatest" and "guts." Ending on a guttural word like guts—plain, crude, and one syllable, also helps convey the savagery of the speaker's emotions, as does the visual imagery of the words. And then, to show the speaker is no sociopath, Orwell finishes his thought with the deadpan sentence that follows:

Feelings like these are the normal byproducts of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

It is possible to go through the entire essay this way and look carefully at how language is being used to make a point. Orwell wants us to feel how tormented and distressed his speaker feels at being caught between two cultures that hate each other, each caught within the senseless, evil system of imperialism.

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