Shooting an Elephant

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Shooting an Elephant is an essay published in the literary magazine New Writing in 1936 and composed by famous English writer George Orwell, who was recognized for his farseeing and dystopian literary work. He brought an issue of an oppressive imperial power of British imperialism in Lower Burma (colonized by Great Britain during 1823-1886, country is called Myanmar now) where he represented it as a sub-divisional police officer of the town, Moulmein. The whole essay in essence, is a metaphor the author alluded to promoting his stance on the dooming outcome of imperialism; it is bad and destructive for both: Burmese and British-conquerors and conquered. It is a mutually inhibiting process of country’s development.

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And the prediction of Orwell came true; in our days-82 years later [since the essay was written]-colonies are no more. This short literary piece’s style was very typical of many others done by the author during his life. Orwell supported his argument by the main story of how the police officer was trapped between his own outrage and indignation toward the British Empire and Burmese people’s resentment toward him. The story was centered on the unwilling killing of the biggest and graceful land animal: the elephant by the imperial servant. The rare white elephant was used by local construction companies to haul logs or for transportation.

While George Orwell’s protagonist in his essay (using collections of metaphors, figurative language) is stereotyped as a white man-strong tyrant/ruler from the British Empire; a Sahib, who was spending his life “trying to impress the natives, in reality he secretly hates his association with the tyranny and roots for the locals. Eventually he fulfills the expectation of the “natives” by killing the elephant, who was no longer posing any threat to the people or to the property. Orwell was trying to fit the stereotype not to disapprove it, becoming in essence a captive of it, thereby partially revealing the other opposite (implicit) side of the medal of the perceived colonial power glory.

Orwell used three strategies to deliver his argument to the readers delivering his opinion. First, author included exemplification of personal experience; how he was indirectly forced to shoot the elephant against his will, just to save his face, fulfilling the expectation of the public: I did not want to shoot the elephant; he went further: a white man mustn’t be frightened in front of the natives. The narrator claimed: I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. The use of such example illuminated the argument and made a more substantial appeal to the readers-submitting to the expectation of the native’s in spite of his own will.

The second strategy Orwell used was the definition and personification shoot an elephantit is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery. Orwell qualified the animal to an expensive and profit making tool, substantiating it for the readers. Personification, to entice the readers empathy to the elephant and highlighting the author’s feeling, was used in the description of an elephant by attributing to the animal human characteristics, such as when he described the elephant playing with the grass with preoccupied grandmotherly air; calling the shooting the pachyderm a murder, the verb only applied to humans or calling the animal’s dead body a corpse as well. Calling the elephant him and not it made a clear and distinct point to the readers that he did not want to kill an elephant.

The third strategy consisted of his evident and consistent use of Pathos, a clear effort to reach the audience. Substantial use of Pathos was mentioned through the essay, to evoke reader’s emotions; for example, when Orwell equated the elephant to a “very expensive piece of machinery, more important than “Cooley, a common worker. Author described his experience during 1920’s as a young provisional British police officer in Colonial India. The subject strongly insinuated to the element of race discrimination and stereotyping of Englishmen in the colonies against locals (Indians), proliferated in those distant times, when he said that he was glad that the elephant killed a “Cooley” thereby justifying his actions (fellow young police officers say-that it was not a fair “trade” elephant is much more important) or calling native people “yellow faces” on more than one occasion.

Delivering his point, Orwell’s essay was based on three assumptions. First, the author assumed that the reader was familiar with the animal temporary condition of must. [short state of an aggressive behavior] Writer failed to explain it in his text. The fact is that the must is the state of highlighted testosterone level in the animal contributing to his violence was only ambiguously hinted in the essay. Had the reader not known what must is, would make a senseless killing of the beautiful animal totally logical and valid: to save life and property, and a not a sway of the unruly crowd’s will.

Second, in order to fully grasp the narrative, one must assume what kind of audience it was intended to. Knowing George Orwell literature repertoire, it can be guessed that the author tried to appeal to the widest set of populace in the British Empire, and tried to make his voice to be heard. The simple language used in the essay undoubtedly was clear to any English who laid his or her sight on it. Author hinted to his countrymen the language which the majority could understand or associate with.

However to see the authors insinuation, reader has to be able to read between the lines, to understand the allegory of the killing the beast. Fact, that the true argument will be clear to everybody who reads it, remains highly debatable: One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism–the real motives for which despotic governments act. (3)

The third assumption was that the only way the local populace (Burmese) could show their contempt to the subjugation by the British was to mock the oppressors. Orwell showed the examples of a football game or an English woman in the food market. The fact was that since, Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1853 when Burma came under the British mandate-British Raj, English were constantly threatened by a small scale local armed insurgency to a scale of much more than just a trivial nuisance, eventually leading to Burma attaining its full independence in 1948.

Orwell summarized by giving an abstract example of his confined freedom as Englishman in Burma, void of the freedom of his choice; bending to the will of the oppressed natives to just save his face, in the last sentence of the essay, about killing the elephant, he asked: I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool. In the end, the damage was done to both: conquered and conquerors.

In conclusion, while Orwell may have used his high skill of an allegory writing in describing a straightforward animal killing for the joy of the subjugated Burmese-entertainment and food, by the young lawman of the oppressing power state executive branch, the language and subject of the essay made the author’s stance clear and powerful to the vast majority of the readers. Substantial use of Pathos, made the reading very entertaining and definitely engaged the audience with the livid comparisons and anecdotes. The writer delivered his point in a true Orwellian way: the tyrant’s act is, often times, governed by not sound reasons, but by mere expectations of the people it oppresses.

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Shooting an Elephant. (2020, Jun 17). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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