Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

At the very beginning of ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ Orwell notes that during his tenure as a colonial policeman in Burma many people hated him. Furthermore, as a writer of nonpartisan political criticism (paying equal attention to the strengths and weaknesses of all sides), Orwell attracted, and still attracts, his share of personal attacks. As Paul Johnson notes in Intellectuals (1988), ‘‘Orwell had always put experience before theory,’’ and when experience showed that the political Left, with which he had previously identified himself, was just as capable of error as the Right, he said so. Thus the critical tradition concerning Orwell’s work generally and his politically charged writings, including ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ is controversial.

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Readers can glean a sense of how those who favor Orwell tend to treat him from Paul Johnson’s remark that, for Orwell, ‘‘human beings mattered more than abstract ideas.’’ The general position of those who denounce Orwell shows up in Terry Eagleton’s pronouncement about Burmese Days: that it ‘‘is less a considered critique of imperialism than an exploration of private guilt,’’ an offense in Eagleton’s eyes. If the reader accepts Eagleton’s premise that political concerns should outweigh personal ones, then the final sentence of the story: ‘‘I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool’’ is unacceptable. In a recent article in the journal Academic Questions, Steve Kogan has tallied recent criticism of Orwell and finds it to be overwhelmingly in the Eagletonian vein.

An interesting aspect of commentary on‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ is whether it is a story or an autobiographical essay. In favor of the latter, Peter Davison points out, in his George Orwell (1996), Orwell indeed shot an elephant while serving on police duty in Burma: ‘‘He shot the creature but then was in considerable trouble because the elephant, which was valuable, belonged to one of the influential European timber companies.’’ Accepting that the piece stems from experience—as is so often the case with Orwell—and remembering that the action ceases on a number of occasions so as to permit discussion of the events, the designation of ‘‘essay’’ seems plausible. On the other hand, Orwell made many alterations to the actual case on which the finished item was based, effectively rendering ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ fictional. Of course, the problem is merely technical and by no means irresolvable, and the mixture of genres even amounts to an added strength. Orwell himself classified the piece as an essay, including it in a collection of his essays as late as 1949.

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Essays and Criticism

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