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The British Empire and Nationalism
‘‘The City of London,’’ writes Paul Johnson in Modern Times, ‘‘was incapable of planning anything, let alone a world-wide conspiracy; it simply followed what it imagined (often wrongly) to be its short-term interests, on a day-to-day basis.’’ Johnson refers to the British Empire, with its far- flung dominions, and to the widespread contemporary idea that the age of imperialism resulted from the malicious foresight of evil powers. Johnson argues instead the great empires of Britain, France, and the Netherlands expanded through a series of unplanned acquisitions, burdening the home country with moral guilt and monetary debt, and dissolving as spontaneously as they formed. Something of Johnson’s analysis seems to inform ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ with its air of absurdity and directionlessness. If anyone knew about the tedious minutiae of imperial administration, it was George Orwell, who had been born in India and who served in Burma (1922-27) as a colonial policeman.
Orwell arrived at a time when Burmese native interests began to assert themselves against British rule (the British had been in Burma since 1824, when they defeated a Burmese warlord, Maha Bandula, who aggressively opposed British interests in Bengal). Strikes organized by the Young Buddhists paralyzed the administrative center of Rangoon; the antimodern Sayan San movement gained strength in the countryside (and would foment a full-scale rebellion in 1932, a few years after Orwell’s departure). Indeed, one of the chief consequences of Western imperial expansion in Asia (as in Africa) was that it brought industrialized and non-industrialized societies forcibly together in a world made ever smaller by technological progress and so provoked resentment between the ‘‘haves’’ and ‘‘have-nots.’’ The resentment persisted, moreover, even where the colonized society benefited materially from the imperial presence. Burma was one of the few arms of the British Empire that actually produced a profit, through rice exports, in the period between the two world wars. Nationalism is the political expression of the spontaneous resentment against the foreigners recorded by Orwell in his story.
Western Self-Doubt after World War One
‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ takes place in an exotic setting, but it is a Britisher’s story and tells us at least as much about Europe between the wars as it does about colonial Burma in the same period. The story’s narrator above all doubts his own legitimacy, and this self-doubt characterizes much of European life in the aftermath of World War I. That war shattered the confidence of the proverbial Good European; it seemed to prove that civilization was a kind of delusion always ready to collapse into the fraternal violence of international conflict. World War One vindicated the West’s pursuit of technological excellence: aviation and broadcasting, for example—features of modern life—emerged from the war; but Western nations came to question their moral capacities after participation in the bloodbath of the war. One response to the horror of the war was the escapist enthusiasm of ‘‘the Roaring Twenties,’’ but, for intellectuals, this offered little consolation, precisely because it was so obviously escapist. Much thoughtful literature of the 1920s is full of bewilderment and pessimism, with works like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Franz Kafka’s The Trial suggesting the intellectual temper of the times.
The American stock-market crash in 1929, and subsequent worldwide economic depression, provoked an even greater depth of crisis. European nations, not yet fully recovered economically from the war, plunged into catastrophic non-production, inflation, and unemployment.
The response to crisis is often to look for scapegoats. The 1930s, the decade when ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ appeared, was already the decade of persecution in the service of nationalism. The Hitler regime had ascended to power on its anti-semitic platform in 1933, and Stalin had been persecuting (and murdering) so-called counter-revolutionaries in Soviet Russia for ten years. Spain erupted into a ferociously recriminating civil war in 1936, in which Orwell fought on the Republican side, but with decreasing commitment to any politicized cause.
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Point of View
In ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ Orwell employs a casually assumed first-person point of view; what readers know of the event described in the story, they know primarily from the narrator’s direct and apparently candid divulgence. Couching the tale in the first person enables Orwell to engage in the rhythm of meditation and action without it seeming forced; because the narrator is reminiscing about the event, which occurred some time in the past, his interweaving of essayistic reflections with the main action strikes the reader as quite natural. The use of reminiscence has a further consequence, that of the splitting off of the narrator as narrator from the narrator as agent of an action. The narrator not only directly reports the impressions and thoughts that he experienced at the time of the elephant episode; he also imposes his present, removed, retrospective analysis on the impressions and thoughts of that time. (This is one of the ways in which readers know that the narrator is a man of conscience.) Despite the first-person point of view, the perspectives of others—the Burmese—also come through, since the narrators reports them frankly.
The setting is colonial Burma, part of the British Empire, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s; specifically, Orwell sets the story in a district town called Moulmein. Few British are present compared to the numerous local people, yet the British rule, and the narrator, as sub-divisional police officer, is an agent of that rule. This paradox, that a few succeed in governing a great mass, is part of the setting, as is the local resentment against the British presence. As the narrator says, the local people hate him, and manifest this hatred by subterfuge rather than directly. Burma is a remote outpost of the Empire, and Moulmein is very poor, with its palm-thatched huts and rice paddys. In the ricefarming economy, an elephant corresponds to heavy capital, and only the comparatively wealthy own one. The elephant is a working animal in the Burmese context, performing heavy labor. Readers may glean some sense of the poverty of the people from the fact that they stand ready to strip the dead elephant of its flesh and indeed do so as soon as the narrator has used up his ammunition and departed.
The narrative, while broken up by the narrator’s reflections on the events he is recalling, is essentially straightforward and makes use of two motifs, inevitability and augmentation. As soon as the narrator receives the telephone report of the rogue elephant, it becomes inevitable that he will have to kill the animal; merely going out to see what is happening insures this, as does the discovery of the trampled Burmese man, and the narrator’s sending for the elephant gun and cartridges. The increasingly agitated crowd (augmentation) also militates against sparing the animal. The increasing size and unanimity of the crowd thus also functions as part of the story, the mob itself becoming something ever more enormous and dangerous, like a rogue elephant, whose danger the narrator avert only through offering it what it wants, namely the death of the creature (and the subsequent boon of its flesh). The story exhibits a certain rhythm, already remarked, that of meditation and action; it starts with reflec tion, tells part of the story, reflects further, offers its climax, and then ends with a final reflection.
Symbols and Imagery
The narrator himself is a symbol for the people over whom, as a colonial policeman, he holds authority: He is, for them, an image of foreign and arbitrary rule and the object of their resentment and hatred. Signs of his having been reduced by them to a symbol include his being mocked by the young Buddhists and being tripped on the soccer field by a Burmese to the sound of the crowd’s laughter. What of the elephant itself? A captive laborer who, in his animal fashion, resents his subjugation, he breaks loose, exercises his freedom, tramples one of his tormentors, and finally parks himself peacefully enough in a field. Yet rebellion requires chastisement and he must die. The narrator personifies the elephant, whose death-agonies take on extraordinary pathos. The personified elephant becomes a walking symbol of human nature put upon and deformed and finally sacrificed for something inhuman, but also sacrificed for the sake of the mob’s anger and appetite, so that he becomes the innocent victim of all parties, not merely of the colonial ‘‘oppressors.’’
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Davison, Peter. George Orwell: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.
Eagleton, Terry. ‘‘Orwell and the Lower Middle Class Novel.’’ In Bernard Oldsey and Joseph Browne, editors, Critical Essays on George Orwell. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986.
Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Johnson, Paul. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (RevisedEdition). New York: Harper & Row, 1991. 153, 154-55.
Kogan, Steve. ‘‘In Celebration of George Orwell.’’ Academic Questions. Vol. 10, No. 1. 13-30.
Muggeridge, Malcolm. Burmese Days. In Harold Bloom, editor, George Orwell: Modern Critical Views, New York: Chelsea House, 1987.23.
Hitchens, Christopher, and Norman Podhoretz. ‘‘An Exchange on Orwell.’’ Harper's Vol. 266, No 1593, February 1983, pp. 56-8. Hitchens responds to an earlier essay by Podhoretz (see below) speculating that had he lived, Orwell would have become a political neoconservative. Hitchens questions several of Podhoretz's contentions regardingOrwell's political attitudes. He especially attacks Podhoretz's contention that Owell maintained a Leftist stance primarily to give weight to his criticism of left-wing politics. Podhoretz responds with selected quotations from Orwell's works to support his contentions.
Hunter, Lynette. George Orwell: The Search for a Voice. Stony Stratford, England: Open University Press, 1984, 242 p. An examination of Orwell's narrative voice in all of his major works.
Meyers, Jeffrey. A Reader's Guide to George Orwell. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975, 192 p. Concise and accessible, yet thorough and scholarly, introduction to Orwell's works.
Podhoretz, Norman. ‘‘If Orwell were Alive Today.’’ Harper's Vol. 266, No. 1592, January 1983, pp. 30-2, 34-7. Speculates that had he lived into the 1980s, Orwell's political views would have shifted from democratic socialism to neoconservatism.
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Bowker, Gordon. George Orwell. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Connelly, Mark. The Diminished Self: Orwell and the Loss of Freedom. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 1987.
Cushman, Thomas, and John Rodden, eds. George Orwell: Into the Twenty-first Century. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2004.
Gardner, Averil. George Orwell. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Hunter, Lynette. George Orwell: The Search for a Voice. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1984.
Jensen, Ejner J., ed. The Future of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
Muller, Gilbert H. Major Modern Essayists. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1991.
Taylor, D. J. Orwell: The Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2003.
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1930s: High-water mark of the British Empire. Burma is one of the Empire’s most productive colonies. Also an important decade for incipient independence movements, like those of Nehru’s Congress Party in India and the various anti- British movements in Burma itself.
1990s: Burma achieved independence in 1948 and almost immediately fell into a succession of internal rebellions. In the 1990s the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma is ruled by a repressive military dictatorship.
1930s: Spain breaks out in civil war in 1936 (Orwell fights); Germany and Austria very nearly go to war in the same year. Japan continues its campaign in China, where it invaded, with the aim of establishing colonies, in 1931. Showtrials begin in the Soviet Union.
1990s: The disappearance of European empires, all of them dissolved in the decade after World War Two, neither leads to prosperity in former colonies nor insures against the oppression of ethnic or other minorities, as the continuing plight of the Third World demonstrates. Ethnic disputes abound in all regions of the world in the last decade of the twentieth century.
1930s: British writer Rudyard Kipling, known for his poems and stories of colonial India and Burma, dies. Kipling’s stories in many ways defined the ‘‘conservative’’ attitude toward empire, that the overseas colonies were Britain’s obligatory burden and that they constituted a civilizing mission. Orwell wrote an obituary essay on the occasion of Kipling’s death. While critical of Kipling’s jingoism, Orwell defends him against the charge of ‘‘fascism,’’ saying that Kipling’s denouncers tend far more toward totalitarianism than Kipling ever did.
1990s: It a critical commonplace to denounce Kipling as both a fascist and a racist, and Orwell is regularly described as an apologist for the British Empire and a racist. The tendency to politicize letters, which Orwell diagnosed and strove to quell, results in Orwell himself becoming a target and makes him a still-relevant analyst of the intellectual scene.
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