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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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In "Shooting an Elephant," how does a cultural criticism lens enhance reader understanding?

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Utilizing the cultural criticism lens, readers can better analyze how the narrator's cultural identity affects his perception of the Burmese. The narrator can sympathize with them but at the same time view them with contempt since he is a privileged British elite. By viewing the text through a cultural criticism lens, readers recognize that rules and laws are not always just and understand how they are influenced by social status, culture, and historical context.

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Cultural criticism is defined as a specific critical lens a reader can apply to view a story which examines how different aspects of culture like religion, ethnicity, social class, language, and political beliefs affect the interpretation of a text. Utilizing a cultural criticism lens allows the reader to identify and explore the privileged or excluded groups in a story and examine their relationship from a new perspective. Readers using a cultural criticism lens examine how the events in a story are an interpretation of the author's culture and explore how the work considers traditionally marginalized groups.

In Orwell's celebrated short story "Shooting an Elephant," readers can apply the cultural criticism lens to examine how the narrator views the oppressed Burmese as well as his perception of the ruling British imperialists. Orwell vividly illustrates the oppressed living conditions of the Burmese, who are tortured, beat, and unjustly imprisoned. As a member of the ruling British elite, the narrator also resents the way he is treated by the Burmese, who go out of their way to make his life miserable. Readers commiserate with the narrator, who sympathizes with the Burmese while simultaneously viewing them with contempt. The narrator's cultural identity prevents him from expressing his individuality, and he is caught in a crux between supporting the Burmese and obeying the British.

During the narrator's encounter with the tranquil elephant, the narrator experiences an epiphany when he recognizes the true nature of imperialism: "When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." Since the narrator is a privileged British officer, he must maintain his cultural identity by acting resolute and callous, which influences him to shoot the elephant against his will.

By applying the cultural criticism lens to Orwell's short story, readers understand how one's cultural identity forces them to behave a certain way and restricts their individuality. The cultural criticism lens also allows readers to grasp the sense of power a marginalized group like the native Burmese have over agents of the ruling imperialist regime. Despite their oppressed status, the Burmese can use peer pressure to manipulate members of the ruling class. Cultural criticism emphasizes the complexities of imperialism by illustrating the perspectives of the privileged and marginalized groups in the story.

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When using a cultural criticism lens, one looks at a text from the perspective of social location. Social location refers to a person's age, gender, social and economic status, education, and ethnicity: the entire constellation of factors that determine how a person views the world. People from different social locations tend to view the world in very different ways, because their needs and concerns vary.

Orwell, in this essay, is careful to distinguish between the cultural perceptions of the Burmese and their British imperialist rulers. The narrator both feels sympathy for the Burmese, because he understands they have been oppressed and mistreated by the British—he mentions the prisons and the brutal physical punishments meted out—but also, from his own perspective, feels anger at the Burmese due to the hostility with which they treat him. They are always seeking ways to humiliate him and bring him down.

By looking through the lens of two cultures trapped in conflict, we can better understand Orwell's point in this essay, which is that imperialism becomes a trap for everyone involved. Each side engages in senseless rituals that have to be played out. Imperialism forces the imperialists into pointless acts or cruelty merely in order to save face, because maintaining the social hierarchy—keeping the social locations rigid and intact—is more important than running the country well.

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I think that the lens of cultural criticism is important to use in analyzing Orwell's short story because cultural identity plays such a large role in understanding Orwell's predicament in the story.  Using the lens of cultural criticism helps the reader to understand the layers of antagonism that would exist between the British culture and the Burmese culture.  For example, the moment in which the British officer confronts the elephant is one where cultural identity drives the action. Orwell notes that the elephant no longer poses a threat.  Yet, the Burmese villagers watching him expect him to take action.  In this conflict, cultural reality exists.  Viewing this moment through the lens of cultural criticism, one fully understands and grasps how Orwell as the British officer is compelled to represent the savage British stereotype and how the Burmese who want the elephant's blood capitulate to the savages intrinsic to the Burmese stereotype.  This moment is one where the sad nature of each side is revealed to be the case precisely because of cultural notions of the good locking each one into roles that they cannot escape.  The tragic conditions of Orwell's short story are amplified and fully developed because of viewing this moment through the lens of cultural criticism.  Even the closing sentiment of the short story is one that can be accentuated in its understanding through the lens of cultural criticism:  

I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

Analyzing this line through a lens of cultural criticism shows how cultural identity locks individuals into roles that challenge individuals to act in a way that is defined by cultural notions of the good.  Orwell admits that the killing of the elephant, taking action, was not out of his own volition.  Rather, he was compelled to take action based perception of his own culture and his perception of Burmese culture.  In this, cultural criticism would reveal the intense glare that is a part of cultural identity.  Through this lens, greater understanding of the theme in Orwell's story emerges.

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