Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

Shooting an Elephant book cover
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In what ways does the narrator of "Shooting an Elephant" fail to personify words like "imperialism" and "despotic?"

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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It is true that while this essay illustrates some of the salient characteristics of despotism and imperialism, it never puts a "face" on these terms, relying instead on the reader's understanding of what these words mean. The narrator mentions despotism once, noting that the incident with the elephant showed "the real motives for which despotic governments act"--that is, such governments act to save face and maintain power at all costs, even if the innocent have to suffer for it. In the same sentence, the narrator mentions imperialism: if he saw the real "motives" behind despotic government, he also saw the real "nature" of imperialism. However, that "nature"--cruelty and face saving--is not distinguished from the "motives" of despotism. If the reader does not already know what each one is, it would be difficult to understand their differences from this sentence. Likewise, the other two uses of imperialism in the essay don't shed much light on it: the narrator simply says he "hated" it and that it aroused his desire to kill local Buddhist monks in response to their passive aggressive behavior. 

In the essay, Orwell is trying to show the pointless stupidity caused by trying to hold political power by force alone, but he could have been more specific about what exactly he meant by abstract terms like despotism and imperialism. If he wanted to "personify" them he would have created distinct, memorable, individual characters that embodied each trait or given the traits human characteristics. He does this in 1984when he describes despotism as the boot crushing a human face. 

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