Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell

George Orwell (1903 – 1950)

novelist, essayist and critic

combined literary fiction with political aims

outspoken commentator on the social and political issues of his time

„My starting-point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself ‚I’m going to produce a work of art.“ I write it because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention.“

Eric Blair was born in Bengal (today: Bangladesh), which was then a province of India under British colonial rule

his father was a minor British government official there

until 24 Eric lived a conventional upper middle class life there

his parents showed a snobbish, class-conscious attitude

Eric went to Eton (on a grant) where he described himself as an „odious little snob“

in 1922 he went to Burma (today: Myanmar) to serve the Imperial Police

there he witnessed at first hand the suffering and poverty caused by British rule and came to hate imperialism

after five years he could stand it no longer and resigned

Historical and cultural background

The short story is set at a time when British colonialism was no longer at its height: the great age of the British Empire was under the rule of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), from the beginning of the 20th century it began to decline.

“Shooting an Elephant” illustrates the beginning of anti-British feeling in Burma

It is sometimes described as an autobiographical essay and indeed is based on an event which took place when Orwell was a police officer in Burma.

This personal background and the first person point of view suggest that it reflects Orwell’s opinion about colonialism.

The story is an expository and argumentative essay, but at the same time descriptive and narrative.

Interpretation – story level

The narrator is caught between sympathizing with the Burmese and anger at the way they treat him.

He hates imperialism and the role he is forced to play in it.

The crowd expects him to shoot the elephant, partly because they want to have some fun and food, partly because they expect him to deal efficiently with the situation.

The narrator feels pressurized by the crowd to conform to his role as a figure of authority.

Not killing the elephant would be interpreted as cowardice and incompetence.

He gives the elephant a slow, agonizing death.

He feels ashamed and hides behind the legal justification.


Deeper level

The incident reveals the damage imperialism does to both the colonized and the colonizers, because it contrasts one man’s conscience with the role he is expected to play as a representative of the colonial power.

The narrator realises that he has no choice: he is expected to conform to the role of the strong, decisive colonial ruler.

The Europeans have become caught by their own images and their own code of behaviour.

The narrator rejects the role of the authoritarian sahib, but by allowing the crowd to dictate to him he becomes the very type of person he hates, a tyrant acting like an insensitive robot, a puppet of his imperial masters – if he doesn’t kill the elephant the crowd will laugh at him, and the laughter of “inferiors” is intolerable to the colonial ruler.

Themes

CONFLICTS:

British colonial administrators – native Burmese (hatred, distrust, resentment)

personal level (local people harass him whenever they thing they can get away with it)

personal dilemma of the narrator (his moral standards differ from those of the institution he works for)

conflict between the narrator and his colleagues

conflict between appearance and reality (who is it who truly rules?)

Characters

Narrator

attitude to Burmese: reflection about own reactions

hatred of imperialism

ambiguous attitude to Empire

Elephant

tools in the hands of the colonialists (belongs to an Indian who were considered to be tools of the British Empire)

becomes more human when he dies (makes the narrator’s act seem even more horrible)

its slow, agonizing death symbolizes the decline and final collapse of British colonialism

The Crowd

is not described in the same depth as the Europeans (reflects the European ideology of the time – Europeans were a superior race and therefore more worthy of attention).

Orwell does not escape the stereotype of the naive, childlike, cunning savages, the natives are an undifferentiated, depersonalized mass.

is violent and bloodthirsty, doesn’t feel any pity, expresses its resentment without fear of punishment.

Two climaxes

“suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant”

actual shooting of the elephant

STYLE

clear, vivid, concise, simple, direct

colloquial expressions

personal tone

sentence structure creates rhythm

Imperialist ideology

Deconstruction of imperialist ideology

Western civilization is superior to that of the colonies and brings them progress and civilization

Colonialism brutalizes both the colonial rulers and the colonised peoples

In the colonies the Europeans as the “superior” race are in control

The natives hate and resent their colonial rulers and begin to challenge their authority. They lose their freedom to make independent decisions, because they have to play the role of authoritarian leaders

Vocabulary

squalor

Not, Elend, Schmutz

miserable

ärmlich, elend, erbärmlich

antagonistic

gegnerisch, widerstreitend

hostile

feindlich, feindselig

to resent

übelnehmen, sich über etw. ärgern

resentment

Ärger, Groll, Verbitterung

Imperial administrator

Beamter der brit. Krone

ambiguous

zweideutig

to take sides with s.b.

für jem. Partei ergreifen

to be caught between

in e. Zwickmühle sein, zwischen den Stühlen sitzen, gefangen sein zwischen

sense of guilt

Schuldgefühl

to feel humiliated

sich gedemütigt fühlen

ashamed

beschämt

distressed

unglücklich, gestresst

enraged

wütend

to comply with s.b.’s demand

jemandes Anforderungen entsprechen

to harass s.b.

belästigen, beschimpfen, beleidigen, mobben

to disrespect s.b.

jem. geringschätzen

to despise s.b.

jem. verachten

agitated

aufgebracht

to lose authority

seine Autorität verlieren

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

loneliness (An Outpost of Pogress, The Second Hut)

view on the natives (devilized, infantilized – An Outpost of Progress (especially Gobilla), The Force of Circumstance)

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