Understanding Shooting an Elephant in an Anthropological and Non-Political Way
The proper question to pose regarding George Orwell’s ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ is not: what does it tell us about the British Empire or the politics of imperialism? (That, in any case, is always a rhetorical question.) The question is, rather, what does Orwell’s compact masterpiece tell us about human nature, and therefore about the universal morality which grows from an awareness of that nature? In answering this question, the critic might well stumble on some replies to the other, the usual, and by implication the misleading, question. For it is possible that the most important phenomenon of empire is simply the most important phenomenon of humanity, the one around which every ethical system effectively or ineffectively revolves: Resentment, that invidious sense of difference as an intolerable contrast, and the violence that it always and everywhere portends.
Resentment of various types pervades ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ from the beginning to the end. As a conspicuous agent of the foreign presence, a stranger-master, the narrator finds himself, ‘‘for the only time in [his] life,’’ automatically ‘‘hated by large numbers of people.’’ This hatred takes the form, in its non-crisis mode, of ‘‘an aimless, petty . . . anti-European feeling . . . very bitter,’’ expressed in opportunistic acts like spitting betel juice on the dress of a European woman crossing the bazaar, or deliberately fouling a European player during a British-Burmese soccer-match, while the referee (a Burman) conveniently turns his back. The fouled player is the narrator himself, whose misfortune on the playing-field occasions what he calls the ‘‘hideous laughter’’ of the crowd. This laughter recurs at important junctures of the narrative. Note that such laughter constitutes the unanimous vocalization of a crowd polarized around a unique, if momentary, victim, who serves as an individual, actual, and arbitrary, token of the foreign power in the abstract. The structure of this laughter is unanimity- minus-one. (The ‘‘British Empire’’ is never present in and of itself, because it is an abstraction, a system; it only appears through its agents.) Resentment being a mimetic, or imitative, phenomenon (you punch me, I punch you back), the narrator naturally experiences a gut-level response of his own. Despite that fact that he regards the Empire that he serves as ‘‘evil’’ and proposes to throw off his job as soon as the first chance offers, the narrator would nevertheless fondly like to ‘‘drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts’’ on account of the fact ‘‘the young Buddhist priests were the worst of all . . . none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.’’ Spitting, laughing, hooting and jeering are, in this context, related gestures. They designate a convenient scapegoat for the expression of pent-up and dangerous resentment. (Too severe a provocation will entail a punitive response, so the practical spite must be held in check at the level of annoyance.)
Enter the elephant. Orwell as author, his protagonist as narrator, and indeed the crowd all anthropomorphize, attribute human characteristics, to the elephant. But the elephant, of course, is wellknown for its high level of intelligence, a fact which raises it out of the merely animal category; and the social structure of Burmese society under the British tends to underscore such quasi-human status. The animal is a working animal and to do work is to engage in a recognizably social activity; the animal belongs, as Orwell later discloses, to an Indian, a person below the British in the local hierarchy but above the Burmese, a person of some wealth, for the elephant is the equivalent of ‘‘a huge and costly piece of machinery’’ in the local economy. The elephant, like the human overlords of the place, can therefore function as an object of resentment, a safer one (in fact) than...
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