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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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Understanding Shooting an Elephant in an Anthropological and Non-Political Way

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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...

(This entire section contains 2285 words.)

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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 any actual person, because offending him entails little chance of official reprisal. Moreover, the elephant has “destroyed somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow, and raided some fruitstalls,” and he has trampled to death “a black, Dravidian coolie.” The quasi-human animal has committed a quasi-criminal act, one involving deadly violence, which places him in jeopardy of a quasi-legal and fully lethal response. The ambiant resentment of Moulmein, the town where the action occurs, suddenly possesses a center around which it can safely polarize, around which a fierce unanimity-minus-one can abruptly form and find satisfaction for its hitherto blocked resentment.

Orwell carefully recounts the coalescence of the crowd’s Dionysiac passion; at the same time, he gives us a sharp-eyed description of generic crowdbehavior, which is inevitably persecutorial, focused on a victim. As the narrator brandishes his elephant gun, “practically the whole population of the quarter flocked out of the houses” to follow him. Previously, they showed only a lethargic interest in the career of the rogue animal, but now, with an execution in the offing, everyone sharpens his appetite for the event. The narrator too, despite his conscience, will be swept into the lethal consensus: “I had no intention of shooting the elephant,” he says; “I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him”; “I did not in the least want to shoot him.” Yet “it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you,” for the crowd, in its collective presence, exerts a coercive influence. After all, the narrator knows that the crowd expects him to kill the elephant, and that the people have suspended their usual annoyance against him only because the elephant has transiently assumed his place as the object of their invidious animation. Disappointing the crowd would cancel the suspension of its ire against him, with the potential result of a lynching. (In the midst of a mob, with no hostile witnesses, the urge to gain revenge on one of the foreign masters would be hard to restrain.) When the narrator sees the “sea of yellow faces” concentrating on him and feels “two thousand wills pressing [him] forward,” he understands that he will “have to shoot the elephant.”

This scene resembles certain other scenes central to the Western tradition, specifically to the Judaeo-Christian strain of that tradition, which Orwell has earlier evoked by describing the trampled Dravidian as “crucified.” Pilate does not want to execute Jesus, but the crowd does, and Pilate bows to the will of the crowd. Captain Vere, in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, does not want to execute Billy, but must bow to the imagined pressure of British naval law and carry out the death sentence which the situation technically, if not morally, demands. Human beings are imitative creatures—this is their glory and their damnation—who follow the examples set, often quite accidentally, by others, or by tradition accepted without criticism. Orwell’s narrator can no more resist the crowd than Pilate can; he can no more resist the tradition of lynching than Captain Vere can. “A sahib has got to act like a sahib.” But the narrator knows that, in this case, he is not a “sahib,” a foreign overlord; he is, rather, “an absurd puppet” assimilated to the crowd against his will, imitating its convergent desire—that the elephant should die—without the power to resist. To spare the creature would be “impossible,” as “the crowd would laugh at me.” Orwell has already exhibited the sinister conjunction of mocking laughter and scapegoating violence. It is no coincidence, then, that hooting and shooting should turn out to be stages in the same escalation, like laughter and slaughter.

Should he merely test the elephant to confirm his sense that it has passed its “must” and is now in a peaceable mood, and should the elephant against his expectation charge him, “those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill.” Whereupon he, too, would be humiliated and crucified.

The narrator now becomes the designated executioner on behalf of the crowd. When he pulls the trigger, the crowd’s vocal approval, earlier a mere “aimless” Schadenfreude, now becomes a single “devilish roar of glee.” A parallel incident from the literary tradition might be the cry of “Hic est nostri contemptor!” or “There is the one who mocks us!” uttered by the Bacchantes just before they converge on, murder, and dismember Orpheus, who has trespassed into their territory. The “devilish roar of glee” is the lynching cry. As for the victim of this paradigmatic victimary scene, the poor elephant, in death he becomes more human than ever: “He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old . . . he sagged flabbily to his knees . . . You could see the agony of it jolt his body.” Not yet dead—“he was dying very slowly and in great agony”— the elephant lies in a panting mound, his breath “very rhythmical with long rattling gasps.” The narrator tries to end the creature’s suffering with his sport rifle (having used all of his elephant cartridges), but to no avail. “I could not stand it any longer and went away.”

To complete the sacrificial ritual which this crowd-scene comprises, the narrator records how the crowd were closing in on the moribund beast “bringing dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.” As in the murder of Orpheus, the scene concludes with a sparagmos, the frenzied dismemberment and consumption of the victim.

“Shooting an Elephant” depicts a cycle of resentment and violence, in part obvious, in part subtle. Obvious is the fact that, in oppressing the Burmese, the British incur their righteous wrath. Orwell spares little in his picture of the imperial order. A colonial policeman sees “the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who have been flogged with bamboos.” The Empire has “clamped down . . . upon the will of prostrate peoples.” A humiliated people understandably hates its contemptor and seeks the means to return the disfavor of conquest; absent a direct means, indirect means must suffice, as when the anger that the crowd feels towards the narrator as an agent of empire gets deflected to the elephant. But is Orwell condoning the crowd’s behavior, or his own, pressured by the crowd?

No, no more than he condones the British Empire’s behavior in its Asian dominions, or his own behavior in the service of the Empire. If the British presence, enforcing itself by violence against the Burmese, is unjust, violating the intuitive rules of universal humanity, then the Burmese persecution of individual Europeans is no less unjust according to the same criterion. The most that one can say in mitigation of Burmese cruelty is that it is a response to British cruelty, but cruelty is never, under any circumstances, just. Justice consists in the opposite of imitative violence: It consists in restraint, consideration, compassion, and tolerance, none of which is exhibited by either side in the British-Burmese conflict.

The key to the moral content of “Shooting an Elephant” lies in a chain of identifications made by the narrator, beginning with his identification of the trampled Dravidian with the victim of the crucifixion. The dead man is truly an innocent victim whom the elephant, in his rogue career, has charged and trampled; he has humiliated the man in the rootsense of the word by grinding him into the humus or mud. It is a senseless, undeserved death. When the narrator pulls the trigger, the elephant collapses into the mud, making the image of him congruent with the image of the dead Dravidian. Overcome by the wounded animal’s suffering, the narrator identifies, empathizes, with it, and having authored the creature’s misery, he tries to end it. All of these identifications (Dravidian with Jesus, elephant with Dravidian, narrator with elephant) come together with an earlier image, that of the humiliated Burmese in the Imperial jail, the “prostrate peoples” victimized by Empire. Readers should not forget that the narrator, too, has been humiliated, tripped up on the soccer-field and made the focus of cackling scorn. No group in “Shooting an Elephant” holds the monopoly on victimhood; every group is capable of persecution.

This is to say that all groups are human and prove their humanity by displaying the same propensity to focus their “aimless” resentment by imitating such actions of others as tend (perhaps quite accidentally, perhaps by a prior meditation) to designate a victim, whereupon, unconstrained by effective (i.e., moral) order, they converge on the victim and immolate him. The narrator’s disgust is thus not simply with an unjust British Empire, but with “the younger empires that are going to supplant it,” a calculatedly ambiguous phrase which suggests that humanity will remain perennially liable to its own basest motives, empire succeeding empire, world without end. The only exit from this eternal cycle of resentment and violence, followed by counter-resentment and counter-violence, is a type of consciousness which can turn its back on the fascination of such things and assimilate the knowledge about what human beings are, at base, and how their worst proclivities might be curbed. Significantly, in introducing his story, the narrator says that, before he killed the elephant, he “could get nothing into perspective.” Afterwards, he understands that his own vanity caused his assimilation to the crowd and made him the instrument of its bloodlust. “I had done it,” he says, “solely to avoid looking a fool.” He has crossed from the unconsciousness of being the puppet of a spontaneous collective killing to the consciousness of his own vulnerability to senseless imitation and participation mystique. One does not achieve such consciousness without an accompanying guilt.

Source: Thomas Bertonneau, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.

The Ideological Eye-witness: An Examination of the Eye-witness in Two Works by George Orwell

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The resilient myth of George Orwell as a blunt, contentious, but fundamentally honest writer draws much of its force from Orwell's position as an eyewitness to crucial events or significant situations. Whether as down-and-outer in London, imperial policeman in Burma, militia man in Spain, or investigative reporter in northern England, Orwell had seen for himself many of the things he would later describe. This fact, coupled with a spare prose style—a style too readily accepted as guileless— gave to much of Orwell's writing the quality of reality, faithfully captured. Modern critical debate, however, has called into question the capacity of the author to depict reality, objectively or otherwise; the terms themselves—'author', 'depiction', 'reality' and 'objectivity', are viewed with varying degrees of scepticism. The role and status of the eyewitness, the T in literature, are under scrutiny.

This has always been true in the proper arena for the eye-witness, the court of law. In court, the eye-witness is not to be trusted. Or, at very least, not to be trusted completely, or immediately. Although the claim to have seen an event, to be in possession of evidence, suggests a grasp of reality, the inherent subjectivity of the first-hand account is manifest. In a court of law the eye-witness is liable to rigorous questioning. Both the bona fides, the 'character', of the eye-witness, and the validity of the account itself must be established. And there is always the threat of other evidence, other eye-witnesses.

In literature the situation is different. Since the narrator, the T of the work, exists only as words on paper, the establishing of the 'character' of the eyewitness must itself be confined to the text. More importantly, all the 'evidence' presented has been selected and arranged by the author with a particular verdict in mind. The trial, it would seem, is rigged. Yet, in terms of the courtroom analogy, the reader operates as a jury, weighing evidence, accepting and rejecting as seems fit. Literature fundamentally differs from law in that, potentially, there are as many verdicts as there are readers.

The role and status of the eye-witness have a particular relevance for Orwell criticism. A recurring element in analyses of his work is the conflation of the writer and his writings. Bernard Crick has noted 'astonishing agreement .. . that [Orwell's] work can only be understood by characterizing the man'. The confusion of writer and writings is heightened in those works purporting to give first-hand accounts of events or situations. Is the narrator of such pieces, the T from whose viewpoint the narrative unfolds, to be taken as Orwell? If so, what effect might this have on any interpretation of the 'evidence' put forward? This problem is especially important in Orwell's case, for he is one of those intriguing writers able to draw vilification or praise from either political wing. To compound these difficulties, before the publication of Animal Farm in 1945, only five years before his death, Orwell was a well-considered but relatively minor writer. The received Orwell is a multifaceted, and in many ways posthumous, creation. Nevertheless, the problem of disentangling Orwell from his work remains; the writer may be 'dead', in Barthes' terms, but is still capable of haunting the text. Examining two short, early pieces by Orwell allows for the consideration of these questions and problems.

'A Hanging' and 'Shooting an Elephant' occupy the ambiguous space at the intersection of fiction and non-fiction. Both can operate successfully as fictional short stories. Nevertheless, in the index to The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, both are categorized as 'non-literary' events in Orwell's life; 'shoots an elephant' and 'participates in hanging' are given equivalent status with 'street fighting in Barcelona' and the rather less momentous 'buys chessmen and mends a fuse'. There is no corroborating evidence that these events occurred, the respective index references pointing solely to these works. Clearly, the editors of the collection accept Orwell's role in these events, and consequently consider 'A Hanging' and 'Shooting an Elephant' to be first-hand accounts. Analysis of each piece questions this simplistic assumption. Orwell uses the perspective and persona of the eyewitness, the T, as a rhetorical device, both for structural and ideological purposes.. . .

If the narrator in 'A Hanging' is primarily a spectator, that of 'Shooting an Elephant' is the focal point. Though, again, a middle-ranking imperial official, the narrator of the second piece is a far more complex character and central to the situation he describes. 'Shooting an Elephant' begins: 'In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me'. He is the target of physical and verbal abuse for the native population. A pivotal opposition, between individual and group, is established immediately, one that will reverberate through the narrative. The narrator's position is complicated by the fact that he is antagonistic to the system he ostensibly represents: 'Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British'. Further oppositions are established, between British and Burmese, colonizer and colonized, the powerful and the powerless. Yet while the narrator's relationship to the group, the large numbers who hate him, is clear, he stands in an ambiguous position as regards the other divisions; he is an anti-British Briton, an anti-Empire imperialist, and a figure of power put upon by those he has nominal power over.

The complexity of both situation and character is heightened by the fact that the narrator's condemnation of imperialism is equivocal. He states that he 'did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it'. The confused sense of time is important. The narrator confesses not to have known of something happening at the time of writing (that the British Empire is dying) or of something that will happen in the future (that the empires that are going to supplant it will be worse). In the latter case he has no logical way of knowing how the (unspecified) younger empires will operate. This confusion nevertheless strongly suggests that while all empires are evil, some are more evil than others.

The narrator's apparent inconsistencies threaten his role as a credible eye-witness. His 'character' is in doubt. This problem is overcome in paradoxical fashion by the self-revelation of racist and sadistic leanings. The narrator portrays the native population as laughing 'hideously', of possessing 'sneering little yellow faces', of being 'evil-spirited little beasts'. With one part of his mind he recognizes the British Raj as a tyranny, but with another part the narrator confesses 'that the greatest joy in the world would be normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you catch him off duty'. This shocking revelation functions in two ways. Acknowledgement of the brutalizing effect of imperialism on its own functionaries reinforces the attack on the system. More subtly, however, the narrator is shown to be acutely self-aware and disarmingly honest about his prejudices. The reader's trust in the 'character' of the narrator, with the consequent willingness to accept the perspective presented, is achieved by the revelation of alarming tendencies.

The construction of a self-revelatory narrator is a preamble to the central narrative, the shooting itself. Called upon as the local representative of imperial power, to put down what supposedly is a rampaging elephant, the narrator, on sighting the animal, recognizes that in the interim it has become harmless. Yet the huge crowd of Burmese that have followed him force the narrator to a moment of crisis:

I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had to do it... I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

The narrator's function as the personification of imperialism is seen clearly in the revelatory claim that 'when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys'. This appears to indict imperialism, to provide an index of its dehumanizing impact. The stunningly myopic statement in fact blatantly ignores the effect of imperialism on the local population. Emphasis on, and a consequent empathy with, the white man's loss of freedom leaves that of the Burmese unconsidered. This onesidedness is founded on the opposition of individual and group. The narrator, the solitary, vulnerable individual, is exposed as essentially powerless. In contrast, the Burmese are viewed as a largely un-differentiated, depersonalized, mass. Their very amorphousness suggests an ability to resist imposed pressures, to survive the impact of imperialism. The concentration on the narrator's individual crisis undermines a thorough-going critique of imperialism.

The eye-witness perspective would seem to imply an exploration of the self by the narrator, and to an extent this occurs in both 'A Hanging' and ' Shooting an Elephant'. In neither case, however, is self-definition or self-examination of prime importance. Instead, what analysis of both pieces foregrounds is the ideological and structural functions of the eye-witness, and the degree to which these two elements interact. The narrator, by defining and validating certain groups in 'A Hanging', and by remaining largely ill-defined, universalizes the attack upon capital punishment. Yet, consequently, this diverts attention from the realities of imperialism. In 'Shooting an Elephant', the juxtaposition of impotent individual and powerful, amorphous mass, functions to the same purpose. .. .

Orwell's use of the persona of the eye-witness, then, has importance both in terms of the narrative and ideology. At the same time it seems clear that it is unnecessary to situate Orwell within either piece to validate interpretation. An understanding of the symbolic importance of the dog, and its role in the construction of the narrative of 'A Hanging', leads to the reconsideration of the narrator as himself a narrative component, rather than a narrative constructor. The invocation of Orwell as narrator is superfluous to an understanding of that tale. The same is true in 'Shooting an Elephant'. In terms of an eye-witness account it suffers from the fact that it was written at least eight years after Orwell had left Burma. His 'evidence' would hardly be credible in a court of law, nor can it be more so in a purported eye-witness prose work. Orwell considered writing the piece only after a request for contributions to John Lehmann's periodical, New Writing. Without this prompt it might never have been written. Despite Orwell's avowed hatred of imperialism, it is an ideological position complicated by the fact that 'Orwell'—as a narrative construct—does not speak with the vehemence of the recent exposure to events that characterize and invigorate The Road To Wigan Pier or Homage To Catalonia, which were to appear within two years of the publication of 'Shooting an Elephant'.

Mention of these later works invites a parting shot at the Orwell myth. Orwell is far too readily accepted in holistic terms, as a unified and consistent writer. His prose style is partly to blame, suggesting by its apparent simplicity a clear, coherent vision. And the various hagiographic characterizations of the man tend to draw attention away from his writings. These, in turn, are often read 'back-wards', interpretations of Orwell's later and more famous works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, being taken as keys to all Orwell's work. The examination of texts like 'A Hanging' and 'Shooting an Elephant', however, suggests a more complex picture of a writer sometimes sure-footed, sometimes stumbling in his efforts to accommodate the demands of politics and literature. Moreover, by allowing the 'eye-witness' to recoil upon itself as a textual component, the boundaries between language and reference, fiction and auto-biography, become problematic. This is especially true of those early works like 'A Hanging' and 'Shooting an Elephant',, written before Orwell (or even Blair) had become what we now accept as 'Orwell'.

Source: Peter Marks, ‘‘The Ideological Eye-witness: An Examination of the Eye-witness in Two Works by George Orwell,’’ in Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day, edited by Philip Shaw and Peter Stockwell, Pinter Publishers, 1991, pp. 85-92.

Shooting Elephants Right

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Malcolm Muggeridge called attention to the affinity between Orwell and Kipling: ‘‘When I used sometimes to say to Orwell that he and Kipling had a great deal in common, he would laugh that curious rusty laugh of his and change the subject. When Kipling died in 1936, Orwell wanted to offer some kind of tribute—a salute of guns, if such a thing were available—to the story teller who was so important in my youth.’’

Similarities and differences are so numerous that one requires a specific point of departure to avoid bare catalogues. My point of departure is a coincidence: both Kipling and Orwell described the shooting of an elephant. Kipling’s story, ‘‘The Killing of Hatim Tai,’’ is a trifle. He wrote it for The Civil and Military Gazette, Lahore (May 12, 1888), and signed it ‘‘Din,’’ perhaps signaling that it was not his own but borrowed from a story printed sixty years earlier in Hone’s Every-Day Book (March 9, 1826). It is interesting first because of the accidental connection with Orwell, and second because it is always printed (certainly in any edition that Orwell possibly read) immediately after a series of six brief stories about one Smith Sahib, whose management of his household compound symbolizes British rule of India. All of the stories are humorous, but they relate a sequence of misadventures analogous to the one monumental misadventure of Orwell’s story. . . .

‘‘The Killing of Hatim Tai’’ tells of an elephant in musth (rut) who has killed his mahout and misbehaved generally. Awkward to execute because of his size, he is turned over to three doctors who give him arsenic, strychnine, opium and then an assortment of other lethal concoctions. In pain, he struggles against his fetters but finally seems unfazed. At day’s end, a young subaltern, contemptuous of the bungling doctors, kills him with one perfectly placed shot.

There is no evidence that Kipling witnessed such a killing, but he knew William Hone’s account of a caged elephant’s destruction at Exeter Change, London, in March, 1826. When arsenic failed and the animal threatened to smash his pen, keepers fired over 120 rifle rounds at a range of twelve feet and stabbed him with spears and a sword before he died. It is a gruesome story, the more so because Hone expresses little sympathy for the animal but great concern for endangered property; and he concludes that within a day ‘‘the menagerie was destitute of offensive smell, and, in every respect, preserved its usual appearance of order and cleanliness.’’

It is unclear from Bernard Crick’s biography whether Orwell personally shot or witnessed the shooting of an elephant. His account of the incident is stunning both because of his style and because it occurs within the intensely moral context of its narrator’s quest for virtue. The story radiates the moral earnestness that is thought to be an indispensable ingredient in serious English writing. Explicit as he is about the divided loyalties and moral ambiguities of his position, the narrator establishes an unwarranted personal superiority—unwarranted because it depends on paranoid assumptions that all ‘‘natives’’ loathe white men and that all white men are (or should be) guilt-stricken for imperial sin. Like other white men managing an empire, ‘‘he wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it’’; but unlike other whites, the narrator sees behind both mask and face and is sickened by the aggression he finds there.

The major difference between Orwell’s and Kipling’s stories is that Orwell is humorless. He seems to say, ‘‘one dare not laugh about such dirty business.’’ But Kipling does laugh. His narrator, perhaps semi-autobiographical, is amusing. The pomposity and arrogance that the mask imposes and that Orwell deplores become comical in Kipling. Smith’s opening statement reveals this fully:

How does a King feel when he has kept peace in his borders by skillfully playing off people, sect against sect, and kin against kin? Does he go out into the back verandah, take off his terai-crown, and rub his hands softly, chuckling the while—as I do now? Does he pat himself on the back and hum merry little tunes as he walks up and down his garden? A man who takes no delight in ruling men—dozens of them—is no man. Behold! India has been squabbling over the Great Cow Question any time these four hundred years, to the certain knowledge of history and successive governments. I, Smith, have settled it. That is all!

He is a silly fellow, the epitome of Orwell’s masked white. Does he deserve to be laughed at by the natives? He does indeed. They laugh at him, and so does the reader. But Orwell’s poor narrator, as full of rectitude and outrage as a young missionary from Indiana, cannot abide the thought of being laughed at because he cannot imagine laughing at himself.

If it is true that ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ was written or drafted while Orwell worked on Burmese Days (1934), perhaps even as an episode in the novel, then the lack of authorial detachment is easily explained. The novel’s hero, Flory, with a large blue birthmark blemishing half his face, kills himself in part because he and Orwell refuse to laugh at a world populated by stereotypes. Kipling, on the other hand, often saw life as a Punch and Judy show full of clownish administrators, shrewd women and cocky subalterns, all dancing their way to oblivion but accomplishing more good than evil insofar as they behaved responsibly toward other people.

Orwell shared with Hone a certain righteous detachment which enables them to tell stories of incompetence complacently. To be sure, Hone’s concern is the commercial interest of the menagerie owner, while Orwell sympathizes with colonial ‘‘natives’’ and condones his schlemiel narrator. Kipling never spares incompetence. He scorns it because it is a fault that hard work, intelligence and discipline can correct. Stupidity can be pitied. In- competence cannot. At times, Kipling became enamored of a Wellsian ‘‘technological elite,’’ the kind of managerial class that Shaw pilloried in Man and Superman, but often the poet and humorist in him countered this mistake. Thirty-eight years his junior, Orwell knew better than to trust engineers, especially engineers of the soul. But then he slips in the opposite direction, embracing the contumacious boy from St. Cyprian’s and Eton—the Eric Blair whom George Orwell never entirely overcame.

By 1942 when he wrote an article on Kipling, Orwell had partially outgrown his lopsided vision, and the article contains a remark that sheds light on both authors. He says we derive a ‘‘shameful pleasure’’ from Kipling because we have the ‘‘sense of being seduced by something spurious.’’ If this is true of Kipling, it is no less true of Orwell because he deliberately misrepresents and falsifies his own experience. Homage to Catalonia (1937) may be an exception, but in his ‘‘documentary tales’’ about his school days, experiences in Burma, or vagabonding in the slums, his preoccupation with ‘‘higher’’ political and ideological truth often betrays him. When he sets up as a ‘‘civilized’’ person looking down on vulgar Kipling (as well as ‘‘the pansy Left’’); when he uses the word ‘‘civilized’’ five times in a brief essay, always to Kipling’s disadvantage, one may conclude that he protests too much— and that he violates his own injunctions in ‘‘Politics and the English Language’’ (1946).

Orwell seems not to have learned at Eton what Kipling learned at Westward Ho! where the headmaster, Cormell Price, ‘‘always told us that there was not much justice in the world, and that we had better accustom ourselves to the lack of it early’’ (‘‘An English School,’’ 1893).

Orwell accepted the grand twentieth-century delusion that capitalist imperialism and class con- flict produce injustice, when in fact they are only modern expressions of an eternal problem. Kipling would no doubt have accepted Plato’s idea that justice is the product of temperance, courage and wisdom, which occur together randomly, rarely and briefly—on occasion even in the Raj, as Kipling witnessed or imagined it. Smith’s administration, however clumsy and ludicrous, is just—which may explain why India and Burma have retained British administrative forms.

Possibly one needs to have bungled killing a large animal to appreciate Orwell’s perfect description of the elephant at the moment of the bullet’s impact, ‘‘suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old.’’ He might have added the grisly detail of the dust cloud that accompanies a bullet’s impact. What Orwell does not explain is the wave of guilt that comes with bad shooting, the sense of inflicting pain through incompetence. His narrator had the right tools but did not know how to use them. This is partly what caused his discomfiture, in addition to his awareness of playing a marginal role in imperial administration.

His efforts to befriend the ‘‘common man’’ notwithstanding, Orwell identified with the intelligentsia. It is improbable that he understood the article of Kipling’s creed that unites him permanently with people outside the intelligentsia: a writer ‘‘must recognize the gulf that separates even the least of those who do things worthy to be written about from even the best of those who have written things worthy of being talked about’’ (‘‘Literature,’’ 1906). That opinion sets Kipling apart from post-Romantic idolators of artists and intellectuals generally, but it puts him in the company of bards since Homer. It also led him to respect expert craftsmen of any trade or profession. He knew that everything in the world breaks sooner or later and that expert repairmen keep things running better than amateurs do. It vexed him that societies, the human equivalent to nature’s order, are usually managed by amateurs whose competence rarely matches their responsibilities. The incongruity creates humor as well as grief, and Kipling registers both while Orwell misses the fun. Together with most English writers of the twentieth century, he could have learned more from Kipling than he did.

Like cattle breaking down the fence into a green pasture, people have a lark when they break out of history’s routine and go conquesting. The brave ones are willing to pay a high price for it—as both Kipling and Orwell learned, but Kipling at a younger age. Perhaps everyone dreams of crusading with Alexander the Great, fewer with Napoleon or Lenin or Hitler. Some marched for Franco; some against him. Whether for fraud, as Orwell believed, or glory, as Kipling hoped, the British empire was one of the most successful larks in history. On balance, it provided more pleasure and less pain to more people than any comparable adventure—even in the Raj. Certainly, as Orwell claimed, the British empire was a ‘‘great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.’’

Might we infer that Kipling’s lighthearted portraits of the vain administrator and decisive subaltern provide more serviceable models for decent behavior than Orwell’s solemn portraits of ‘‘civilized’’ reformers? Say what we will, it is the dutiful expert who manages and repairs everything, whatever the ruling political or ideological form.

It is not necessary to conclude, on the basis of a comparison between the two men, that one is praiseworthy, the other not. Their respect for the integrity of their calling as writers finally makes them equal and enables both to transcend the limits of politics, to perfect styles of writing comparably succinct and vivid, and to create visions of modernity that are complementary. Nor may we dismiss this as a case of overlapping between ultra-Right and -Left. Theirs is the voice of free individuals sounding the alarm at the advent of the Massman, the Group- Thinker, the apotheosized Liar. By 1947, a mature Orwell said emphatically in ‘‘Why I Write’’ that the novel ‘‘is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual’’; it is written ‘‘by people who are not frightened.’’ Kipling insisted that only the ‘‘masterless man’’ could convert deeds into words that ‘‘became alive and walked up and down in the hearts of all his hearers.’’ Both writers knew that the magic is in the words, not the man. This is why they agree that the writer, as Orwell put it, ‘‘struggles constantly to efface one’s own personality,’’ so that the ‘‘demon’’ that drives him can find expression. Kipling had to ‘‘drift, wait, obey’’ when his ‘‘Daemon’’ possessed him.

The voice of the ‘‘demon’’ is a bond that unites people of good will throughout history because it is the voice of each person proclaiming a unique identity within the social mass, however defined. Republic—empire; socialist—capitalist; despotic— democratic: whatever the name for mass-life, all forms threaten ‘‘the masterless man with the magic words.’’ Because they assented to this, Kipling’s and Orwell’s political differences finally seem unimportant. To be sure, fanatics of the Right and Left will conclude that the two men are ‘‘unreliable,’’ perhaps traitors to the Cause with which each identified. A wiser interpretation suggests that art, even in our partisan times, reaches beyond the relativity of each moment and invites judgment by the eternal standard of good sense.

Source: D. H. Stewart, ‘‘Shooting Elephants Right,’’ in The Southern Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 86–92.

Shooting an Elephant—An Essay to Teach

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As teachers of writing, we are concerned with teaching our students how to communicate thoughts and feelings clearly, effectively, and responsibly. Naturally we feel most comfortable and competent in teaching expository writing in which such matters as organization and paragraph development seem to be most apparent, and therefore most teachable. Furthermore, we find our best teaching models in expository essays that have a recognizable structure and a discernible progression of ideas. But we ask more than easy-to-outline mechanical exposition in our models; we want more than physics reports or journalism. We want the vivifying touch of the creative writer whose imagination is at work in matters of selection and structure, of style, and tone.

George Orwell is such a writer. His essays are such models, worth study and imitation. Not only is he a competent and creative writer, but he is, as well, a man who has much to say about the world around him—our world. Specifically, I should like to consider in this paper one of the better essays of our time, ‘‘Shooting an Elephant.’’ It is perhaps Orwell’s finest essay. For those readers, unfamiliar with Orwell, or only familiar with 1984 or Animal Farm, it should serve as an introduction to his other essays. Indeed, all the writings of Orwell deserve the thoughtful attention of the modern reader. . . .

Orwell’s essay defies any easy classification. Is it an essay? If so, what ‘‘type’’? We agree, first of all, that it fits the definition of an essay: it is the conscious attempt of a writer to share his thoughts, feelings, and impressions with his reader on a subject that can be satisfactorily considered in a limited space. What type? We try to distinguish— too often and too mechanically perhaps—between types of writing: the expository, the argumentative, the descriptive, the narrative, and the impressionis- tic. Which of these types of writing is ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ ? It is all of these. Basically, it is an expository essay—an essay to explain. But, as are most essays, either explicitly or implicitly, it is an ‘‘argumentative’’ essay. After all, Orwell wants to persuade us of something; he wants us to adopt his point of view, accept his conclusions. It is a descriptive essay insofar as descriptive detail supports the argument. It is narrative, for it recounts an incident. It is impressionistic, for Orwell’s creative mind is at work with the selection and presentation of vivid detail—those images that will have a powerful effect on the feelings of the reader. This essay, then, is no mechanical type—or combination of types— but a dynamically developed relationship between idea and feeling and words. . . .

In structure, tone, selection . . . word choice— all those matters we unfortunately tend to lump under the one word style—in all these the essay reveals a powerful talent combined with imagination and insight.

Let us consider now, in some detail, the entire essay, from the ‘‘details out’’—from the use of words to the structure of the sentences and paragraphs and of the essay as a whole, ending with a brief look at the essay as a relevant and significant statement of our time. . . .

We are struck immediately by the urgent, even emotional tone of the opening of the essay. The emotionally charged words reflect the intensity of Orwell’s feelings, such expressions as ‘‘sneering’’ and ‘‘hideous laughter.’’ In the second paragraph he uses ‘‘guilt,’’ ‘‘hatred,’’ and ‘‘evil-spirited little beasts.’’ These words, along with his use of the personal pronouns, make us aware that here is a writer who is personally and deeply concerned, a writer whose concern gives immediacy and power to his account. This is evident from the very first sentence in which he states that ‘‘. . .I was hated by large numbers of people. . . .’’ Indeed, most of Orwell’s essays begin with such compelling sen tences; consider the following opening sentences from several other essays:

From ‘‘Such, Such Were the Joys. . . .’’

Soon after I arrived at Crossgates (not immediately, but after a week or two, just when I seemed to be settling into the routine of school life) I began wetting my bed.

From ‘‘Marrakech’’

As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.

From ‘‘England Your England’’

As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

The intensely personal responses and attitudes, however, are not the rantings of an overwrought author. They are given substance and support—and proof—by the descriptive details, the images that prove that the writer is someone ‘‘who was there,’’ who saw and heard and felt.

A useful device to show the effective use of images is to re-write any one of the many vivid and concrete sentences in more abstract terms. For example, sentence three of paragraph one might be rewritten thus: ‘‘No one had the courage to cause trouble, but if a European woman went out alone, she would probably be insulted.’’ Compare it to the original:

No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress.

For those of us teachers whose perennial plea to students is ‘‘Support your generalizations,’’ Orwell’s essay is an admirable example of how it should be done. Orwell knows the power of descriptive detail, the observable evidence that gives his account its validity. Consider these sentences from later paragraphs:

The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth. This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long.

He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.

When the straight, factual description cannot adequately convey the impression, Orwell looks for an effective comparison. The figure of speech for Orwell, as it should be for all writers, is not merely decorative or clever—it serves a vital descriptive function.

The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit.

I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.

His mouth was open—I could see down into caverns of pale pink throat.

The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet.

The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats.

Through the comparisons we have clearer pictures. However, the figures of speech also convey other feelings and suggest other relationships.

Through the first four examples above, we sense Orwell’s own sensitivity—in contrast to that of the Burmese—toward the killing of the elephant. It is no dumb beast; it is made not only human, but regal. The last example gives us the expectant quality of the theater—strengthening the irony in the essay, the irony of circumstance in which the white ‘‘leader’’ must ‘‘play a part,’’ and must soon become a ‘‘puppet,’’ a ‘‘hollow, posing dummy.’’

Some of the purists among us would find objection, in some instances, to Orwell’s use of words. There are such phrases as ‘‘pack of lies,’’ ‘‘had the guts,’’ ‘‘got on my nerves,’’ and ‘‘took to his heels.’’ Indeed, were we to find them on student papers, we would put ‘‘tr’’ in the margin and ask the student to find a ‘‘fresh original image’’ for the trite one. Similarly, some of us might question Orwell’s use of colloquialisms, such as ‘‘guts,’’ ‘‘chucked up,’’ and ‘‘dirty work.’’ However, in the sweep of Orwell’s narrative, they go unnoticed, for they are consistent with the direct, personal tone that gives the essay its immediacy. Here is a man who has something to say, writing directly and vividly, concerned more with communication than with English teachers with red pencils.

The use of words, then, is unpretentious, yet powerful. The simplicity of language makes for forceful, immediate communication of thoughts and feelings. The simple but effective vocabulary is reinforced with figures of speech that give us—who find such Burmese experiences remote—a means to experience Orwell’s sensations through images familiar to us.

It might be useful to present Orwell’s own ‘‘rules’’ on the use of words as presented in his essay, ‘‘Politics and the English Language’’:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Like his choice of words, the structure of Orwell’s sentences is natural and vigorous, reflecting a writer whose thoughts and feelings find their expression in the rhythms of the English language. The sentences vary in length and complexity. The sentences are from three to 52 words long, but most sentences are between 20 and 30 words long. Short sentences reflect the rapid movement of the narrative or the crisp quality of Orwell’s thinking. A few examples will illustrate: ‘‘I had halted on the road.’’

‘‘But I did not want to shoot the elephant.’’ ‘‘I got up.’’ ‘‘All this was perplexing and upsetting.’’ Longer sentences develop or contrast ideas. When a sentence is complex, it is so because the clear working out of the relationship of ideas requires that it be.

Structure and rhythm also reinforce the effectiveness of many sentences. Consider, for example, this sentence from paragraph 11, showing the impact of the first shot on the elephant: ‘‘He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralyzed him without knocking him down.’’ The comma pauses after the predicate adjectives are not simply conventions of the mechanics of writing; they reflect the physical condition of the elephant— the physiological jerks of a being that senses its mortal agony, a being that then slowly begins to feel the vitality slipping away; and this ‘‘slipping away’’ is suggested by the run-on quality of the concluding dependent clause of the sentence. Here, as in the entire essay, sentence structure—or perhaps we should say sentence rhythm—enhances meaning and feeling.

Paragraph 11, from which the quoted sentence is taken, follows now in its entirety, to illustrate the relationship between sentence structure and rhythm of meaning.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick—one never does when a shot goes home—but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralyzed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time—it might have been five seconds, I dare say— he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skywards like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

The paragraph is narrative, and it recounts the shooting and falling of the elephant. In the opening sentence we read that the first shot is fired. The collapse of the beast is described in the last sentence. In between, we have the description of the slow, ponderous, terrible dying of a magnificent beast. The beast—like an empire (and we must never forget this essential metaphor)—is slow to die. The paragraph has its own climax; the tension is developed and heightened as we wait for the elephant to die; we feel the terribleness of his death. The action, deliberate and detailed, is dramatically interrupted with short sentences: ‘‘I fired again in the same spot.’’ ‘‘I fired a third time.’’

Just as the sentences and paragraphs have their own appropriate structure and rhythm, so too the essay as a whole has a natural and logical structure. In studying the structure of an essay, we often talk of the ‘‘order of support,’’ with facts supporting an assertion which, in turn, supports a more abstract statement which, in its turn, helps substantiate the general thesis of the paper. This ‘‘order’’ we perceive most often in argumentative essays. We talk too of the ‘‘order of climax’’ in narrative writing in which the tension of the essential conflict is heightened until it is resolved at the climax of the action. . . .

The paragraphs are in themselves well-structured, organized ‘‘units’’ in the larger narrative. Each paragraph has a well-supported topic sentence, and each topic sentence clearly advances the narrative. A useful device here, in giving students an idea of the overall structure, is to ask them to find and write down all topic sentences. It is not a difficult task. Furthermore, they will see that the entire narrative can be effectively summarized in 17 sentences from the text. Thirteen of them can be clearly labeled ‘‘topic sentences,’’ and 12 of them are opening sentences in paragraphs.

In the beginning, as we have seen, Orwell uses action and detail to get and maintain interest. After two introductory paragraphs, the action of the narrative begins; and from this point, the essay is sustained narrative with relevant descriptive detail with only one significant break in the ‘‘rising action.’’ This break occurs just before the climax, just before the actual shooting of the elephant when the reader’s attention is securely held. At this point, about two-thirds of the way through the narrative, the narrator’s inner conflict and its resolution bring about his most meaningful reflection on the position of the white man in the East, and of an individual man trying to maintain his dignity. After this reflection, the actual shooting of the elephant has even more significance; and the reader returns to the narrative not only for the ‘‘story,’’ but with the full realization of what the shooting ‘‘means,’’ both for Orwell and for all men who are concerned with the conflicts between man and man and between man and himself. It is indeed a significant reflection, and it comes at precisely the right moment in the essay.

In a sense, there are really two ‘‘conflicts’’ in the essay that develop their tensions simultaneously. One is Orwell’s inner conflict, of which we are aware from the essay’s opening sentence. The other is the outer conflict represented in the action which we become aware of when the wild elephant is reported. Both conflicts can be stated as questions: for the inner conflict it is, ‘‘Why must I shoot the elephant?’’ For the outer, it is, ‘‘When will Orwell shoot the elephant and what will happen when he does?’’ Through the inner conflict we experience Orwell’s dilemma as our own. With the outer con- flict, however, we are removed, watching the action. The elements of catharsis—terror and pity, empathy and aloofness—are here. The resolution of the inner conflict, of course, leads inevitably to the resolution of the action. The shooting that follows is simply the manifestation of Orwell’s state of mind. The internal conflict, in other words, brings on his ‘‘epiphany,’’ which is, after all, the important matter. Structurally, the important thing to note is that the climaxes occur where they should—near the end of the story.

The elephant is shot. The dead beast is stripped of its hide and flesh. Other British officials and Indians have a bit to say ‘‘afterwards.’’ But the tension has been released, and the narrative must end quickly, as it does. The essay, then, is a skillful creative interweaving of commentary and interesting detail, of developing tensions and releases, and of swift-moving narrative. The structure of the essay reveals the hand and mind of a master storyteller and teacher.

What, after all, does the essay say? We have seen that it is the work of an intelligent and honest man who comments on his experiences with unpretentious candor. He is, to be sure, a worthy model for all writers. We can also try to look at our world as clearly and directly as Orwell does, and, in writing about it, we can let our words serve their primary function—to communicate our thoughts and feelings as exactly and simply as possible. We have seen that this essay is an example of organized, vivid, and effective communication. But what does it ‘‘communicate’’?

We are aware today of the political and human dilemmas that confront man everywhere, from Africa and Viet Nam to Mississippi. Colonialism, like the great elephant with its royal blood, ‘‘like velvet,’’ is dying. Trusteeships are created. Individuals seize power. Political structures are made, altered, replaced. The nature of the world situation indeed demands consideration of man as a political being, for through political activity he can find the means to self-expression; there are natural and civil rights to be achieved. However, it is not simply that the British, the Belgian, the Yankee should ‘‘go home;’’ but those who help and lead, those who are helped and led, must recognize the individual human being, with feelings and dignity, as well as the political being seeking civil rights. What can happen to the human being in the structured society is important to Orwell, whether the society is benevolent imperialism, a republic, a democracy, or the tight caste system of an English public school. Orwell’s own abhorrence of the ‘‘unfree’’ society that does not let the individual be his human ‘‘off-duty’’ self is present in ‘‘Shooting an Elephant.’’ It is an abhorrence that would lead to his denunciation of communism in his best-known works, 1984 and Animal Farm. Orwell seems always to be asking basic questions: How free can man be? What are the masks—in the name of progress, of tradition, of duty, of civilization, or of the status quo —that men try to wear as they deal with other men? Ultimately, Orwell decries the wearing of any mask that keeps us from recognizing that there are human needs, human strengths, human failings and feelings that we all share ‘‘off duty’’ in a world where the white and colored, the Negro, the African, and the Burmese are not political entities but human beings.

Source: Kenneth Keskinen, ‘‘‘Shooting an Elephant’—An Essay to Teach,’’ in English Journal, Vol. 55, No. 6, September, 1966, pp. 669–75


Critical Overview