Shooting an Elephant Questions and Answers
by George Orwell

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Shooting An Elephant Thesis

What is the thesis of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant"?

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Essays present theses. Narrative essays--describing a personal experience or a personally witnessed event--contain theses; they have a purpose and make a point. The thesis in Orwell's narrative essay "Shooting an Elephant" is complex and goes far beyond being a statement of anti-imperialism or a statement of violently ambiguous personal emotions. Orwell's thesis can be paraphrased as stating that imperialism tears apart and out the heart and soul of both peoples--the oppressors' heart and soul and the oppressed's--and is well encapsulated in the following long quotation that both ends his background introduction (necessary to establish time, place and mood) and leads into the heart of his narration: 

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 by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

First: Some say that narrative essays ought not to have an introduction. However, in a narrative essay like this one, framing the background to establish setting and mood is critical: the suspenseful and emotional impact of the conclusion (of the point) would be weaker--less gripping--without the orientation to how, where, when and why. 

Second: In the quotation above, Orwell (born Eric A. Blair in Mohitari, India, in 1903 to British civil servants) uses a Latin phrase common in religious choral music: in saecula saeculorum, which is a Latin colloquialism (idiomatic expression) that gives the sense of "unto ages of ages." Orwell uses this religious expression to show that, with part of his mind (with "one part of my mind"), he views British imperialism as immutable, as everlasting, as something existing "unto ages of ages," ironically while not even knowing "that the British Empire [was] dying."

Third: The feelings Orwell means in "[f]eelings like these" are all the sets of feelings he is torn by. One feeling is that he hates the empire he serves. Another feeling is that the British Empire is tantamount to a holy thing (as suggested by the religious allusion to in saecula saeculorum) without beginning or end, lasting "unto ages of ages." Imagine the inner conflict from hating that which is felt to be immutable.

Another feeling is that he favors the Burmese impulse toward daily protest of "anti-European feeling" against British occupation: "Theoretically — and secretly, of course — I was all for the Burmese." Another feeling is that he bitterly hates his job in the British police: "I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear." His feeling here is paralleled to the Burmese hatred of the British:...

(The entire section contains 7 answers and 2,004 words.)

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epollock | Student

anjames1989,

Orwell's widely anthologized non-fiction essay "Shooting an Elephant" has an implied thesis: “Imperialistic rulers must behave so as not to lose face or power over the populace, even if it means doing something against their better judgment.”

Orwell felt pressured by the people, almost overwhelmed by their power over him through their mere presence. In theory, he explains at the start of the selection, he “was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” (2). But, in reality, Orwell says, he felt the common people of the country were “evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible” (2).

During the shooting incident the people were “happy and excited,” and they watched him “as they would a conjurer about to perform a trick.” He resentfully saw himself as having to spend his life “trying to impress the ‘natives’” (7). He reports later that, as he fired a shot, the crowd emitted a “devilish roar of glee” (11). His choice of words shows that he resented and disliked the Burmese.

Orwell shoots the elephant because the two thousand native people standing behind him expect him to. They want vengeance for the man it killed, the meat the carcass will provide, and the entertainment of watching the shooting. “The people expected it of me and I had got to do it” (7), he writes. There is an implication that if he decided not to shoot the elephant, both he and the British empire would suffer a loss of prestige, but the main concern in Orwell’s mind is the “long struggle not to be laughed at” (7). He is even afraid to “test” the animal’s mood by going closer for fear it might attack and kill him before he could shoot, thus giving the crowd a sight it would enjoy as much as the slaughter of the beast.

Despotic governments result from the need to maintain power over subtly resistant people. Such a government can rule only by fulfilling the people’s expectations and responding to every crisis with the expected force. Orwell points to the irony that he stood armed in front of an unarmed crowd, yet he was powerless to do as he wished or as his judgment told him. Instead, he felt himself “an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind” (7).

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