Just my thoughts
by Aditya Hingne

Shooting an Elephant

In George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant", imperialism is a system of power that, from the perspective of those carrying it out and those upon whom it is enacted, is unnecessary and unwanted. The essay deconstructs Orwell's experiences and perceptions of the British Empire. His extended metaphor combined with his vivid imagery draws attention to his helplessness as a government representative, and as a human being, in order to prove his argument that imperialism is evil.

In Orwell's discussion of the Burmese people, he establishes the initial complicated situation regarding interaction between Europeans and natives in the first two paragraphs. The British are there to rule over another country, and expect the Burmese to accept their predicament. Though Orwell doesn't support the British Empire, he is still an officer. He is annoyed at the "Bhuddist priests" that "jeer at Europeans;" he feels guilt at watching "prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lockups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos." This is a result of imperialism. As a human being, Orwell struggles with doing his duty and accepting such agonizing mistreatment of individuals who are punished because they cannot adhere to cultural expectations that aren't their own. Orwell understands the oppression of the Burmese, and personally seems to tolerate their actions.

In revealing the tensions he experiences, as well as the conflicts inherent to imperialism, Orwell deploys a narrative of an elephant in "must" as an extended metaphor for the British Empire. The elephant has had a fit and has been attacking a certain part of town, including killing one of the Burmese. However, the Burmese have no weapons to defend themselves. As a metaphor, the elephant is clearly the British who have been oppressing the powerless Burmese. Orwell describes one of the victims: "His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony." This vivid imagery depicts the suffering of native peoples at the hand of the British empire as much as it conveys what happened when the man was trampled by the elephant. Thus all the more weight is added to Orwell's obligation to do something about the elephant.

It is imperial policy that an elephant that has killed someone must be shot. Moreover, it is expected by the Burmese themselves. Orwell comments how "they had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot." Orwell is reluctant to shoot the elephant, particularly because by the time he's acquired the necessary gun and located the elephant it is no longer in must. When Orwell finds the animal, he presumes it "would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him." There is therefore no pressing need to shoot the elephant other than official imperial policy mandating it must be done. The elephant as an extended metaphor indicates that Orwell felt the British Empire had also survived its recent fit and was returning once more to calm. Nonetheless, within the narrative itself, Orwell, as an officer holding an elephant gun, is forced by public perception to use that gun on an elephant that is no longer a menace to society. Orwell's position is one of a reluctant individual who does not want to do what he is being made to do by both the empire and the Burmese. As Orwell reminds the reader, "if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see [him] pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill." Orwell is therefore stuck between what the empire would do to him and what the imperialized would do to him. Orwell therefore takes aim and shoots the elephant, wounding but not killing the animal before commenting that "it seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him." The killing was bloody, agonizing and unnecessary. It was caused by Orwell's context, of being where he wasn't needed and being forced to take actions that weren't required because displays of force were requisite to the maintenance of British power. But like the elephant itself, the British empire was exposed to the potential, lingering violence of the native peoples who could, at any time, overwhelm and destroy it.

The disturbing shooting of the elephant draws attention to the violence inherent to imperialism, to the restrictions placed on imperial officers and to the oppression that is forced on imperialized peoples. It is Orwell's use of extended metaphor and imagery that allow his essay to make a wider point about his experience: that the elephant is not just a single animal in Burma but a representation of the British empire itself. The empire has trampled over people, it has wounded and killed, and it will be put down as a result. But unlike in the essay, where it is Orwell, a British officer, who extends the violence, it is clear that the British elephant will not be euthanized in quite the same manner. If the Burmese rise up to overthrow the British empire there will be more violence than what Orwell has conveyed in his essay.

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