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Shooting An Elephant Essay Analysis

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George Orwell “Shooting An Elephant”: Metaphors and Analysis

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George Orwell immediately begins the essay by first claiming his perspective on British Imperialism. He claims that it is evil and he is fully against the oppressors, the British. Though he is a British officer himself at the time in Burma, he feels a certain hatred and guilt towards himself, his empire, and the “evil-spirited little beasts,” the Burma people. In the essay he writes not just about his personal experience with the elephant but how metaphorical the experience is to Imperialism and his views on the matter. Orwell’s feelings are the hostile feelings toward the British, Imperialism, and Britain’s justification for their actions in taking over Burma.
The entire mood of the essay is set when Orwell illustrates the setting to be a “cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginnings of the rains.” This in turn sets the tone of Orwell’s speech to be weak and discomforting. He already has established the fact that his character is weak when he introduces the Burma people and how they laugh and mock him, the British officer. The build-up of finding the elephant is a metaphor itself showing the destructive power of imperialism: the elephant’s rampaging spree destroying homes, food shelves, and even killing a man whom Orwell described to have an expression of unendurable agony. Upon finally finding the elephant, Orwell says “I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him.” But when he lays eyes at the huge mass of people behind him he changes his stance to “…but I did not want to shoot the elephant.” Orwell then repeatedly states how immoral and guilty it is to shoot the elephant. Despite the many reasons to not shoot the elephant such as how it is worth more alive rather than dead, or how he is a “poor shot,” he ultimately falls into the expectations of the Burma people. Against his will and moral belief he decides to kill the elephant.
Orwell uses the death of the elephant as another metaphor of British Imperialism in Burma. On a side-note, Burma was a free kingdom until British expansion came in. There were three wars between the British oppressors and the Burmese. There was the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, and then the second in 1852. Finally the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 was when the British finally took on total control of Burma. In George Orwell’s essay, he writes “When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick…I fired again into the same spot…I fired a third time. That was the shot that did it for him.” Three wars, three shots. The elephant is a symbol of Burma and it’s struggle to remain alive. Finally staying down after the third shot the elephant still lives, just as the Burmese people are still there but with less strength and hope after the wars. They are now controlled by the British. It can also be looked upon that the elephant’s death was a metaphor for the decline of British rule in Burma too and how they slowly went away or died off. There is a sense of guilt Orwell gives when he mentions seeing the elephant laying there “powerless to move and yet powerless to die.” As some Britians became doubtful of their right to rule others, both sides began to feel hatred, and resentment toward the British Empire. Orwell made himself believe that he was right and it was legal to kill the elephant, by making ideas to justify what he had done, by stating “legally I did the right thing, a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it.” Orwell even shows a different light when he admits he is glad the villager was killed in the attack because legally that too justifies what he has done. But still he knows the truth to be false. The elephant could have been saved without unnecessary harm but Orwell chose the latter.

Orwell uses other metaphors such as when he compares himself to being a magician about to perform a trick, or as being a lead actor in a piece, and even an absurd puppet, a posing dummy, and to be wearing a mask. Holding the “magic rifle” the Burmans of course expected him to kill the elephant. Even being a white man, the authority, it was even more expected. It is then Orwell claims he realizes the true position of whites in the East and how Imperialism hurts not only the victims but the oppressors. Orwell explains how when the white man turns tyrant it is their own freedom they destroy. Being the white man, Orwell says, they constantly must impress the natives and do what the natives expect of them. The natives have the control of the white man. Thus Orwell must complete his role, what is expected of him, and do definite things. Orwell realizes that throughout his entire rule in Burma he is actually the victim of the Burmese, and it is their expectations of what he should do with his power that force him to do what they want.
Orwell mentioned himself to be like an actor in a play. The Burman crowd behind him, the audience. He uses this image again later on when finally takes aim for the elephant’s head. He describes the feeling to be like theatre curtains finally opening to a waiting spectators. He makes many comparisons that demonstrate his weakness in character. He is puppet being controlled. He is forced to wear a mask constantly and play the role of a powerful white man. Orwell gives many small examples that hint the double-edged sword factor of imperialism and how it is overall bad for everyone.
George Orwell uses his personal experience with a moral dilemma to convey to the reader the evils which result from colonial politics and imperialism. He blends his own personal thoughts and opinion into his story. Numerous times it can be seen he puts his personal commentary on some points in the story such as when he described how a dead man does not look peaceful or even the entire sequence when he contemplated on whether to shoot the elephant or not. Orwell also uses some connotations and denotations in the essay. For example he refers to the large crowd of people behind him as “an army of people.” Not only does army make the reader think of a large crowd but to be military-like and force Orwell to change his actions.
George Orwell’s Shooting An Elephant is a great essay combining personal experience and political opinion. The transitions he makes between narration and the actual story is so subtle the flow of the essay is easy to read. More than just falling into peer-pressure, Orwell proclaims what a dilemma it is when people expect groups of people to do certain things and do certain actions. Humans can be influenced so easily. And he shows how the influences of Imperialism harm both sides. Orwell demonstrates this perfectly by turning himself, who is supposed to be the higher power, into the victim! Truly it is a tragedy, Orwell implies, how human beings will do certain things just to “avoid looking a fool.”

By: Andrew Browning

Related posts:

  1. George Orwell’s: Politics and the English Language- Thesis and Analysis
  2. Animal Farm Plot: Summary & Character Analysis

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Article last reviewed: 2017 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2018 | Creative Commons 4.0

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Good

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Awomia I.

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Awomia I.

Conflict between Burmese and white people?

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Shooting an Elephant

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Shooting an Elephant Summary and Analysis of Part One

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Summary

Orwell opens the essay by explicitly describing the hatred that the Burmese people feel for him during his time as a police officer for the British Raj, in Moulmein, Lower Burma. This hatred forms part of a general anti-European sentiment in the area at the time. Though the Burmese aren’t ready to riot, they are hostile toward their colonizers. The main way that their hostility shows itself is through ridicule and bitter laughter. The Buddhist priests, he says, are the worst. They openly mock Europeans.

Orwell is deeply troubled by this atmosphere of hostility, for he feels that he is on their side. He says: “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing” (31). He hates his own role. His job as a police officer gives him a close-up view of the brutalities of imperialism. He describes the whipped and tortured bodies of the people in filthy, stinking prison cells. He describes his inner conflict—on the one hand hating the tyrannical empire that he represents; on the other, being driven mad by the Burmese people who jeer at him and make his job miserable. He explains how at the time of the story he doesn’t yet know himself. He calls himself young and “ill-educated,” suggesting that he doesn’t yet have the confidence to stand up for his own opinions.

The narrative picks up on the day he is called to the other side of town to deal with and elephant that had rampaged through the bazaar. He gets on his pony and takes his .44 Winchester, though he knows the rifle is much too small to kill an elephant. As he goes, he learns from passing Burmen that the elephant is tame, but it’s experiencing a bout of “must”—a passing hormonal disorder that affects elephants. The elephant broke its chain and its owner is away. It has crushed huts, wrecked fruit stalls, killed a cow, and trampled a municipal garbage disposal van.

Orwell ventures to the side of town where the elephant is rampaging. It’s a poor part of town, a shanty, where people live in grass huts. When he arrives he finds people going about their business. He thinks the whole thing has been a lie. Then he comes to a scene where a woman is shooing naked children away. He goes around the corner of her hut and sees a dead man lying belly down in the mud. It looks as the though he’s been stamped into the earth. Orwell describes his face turned to the side, mud filling his mouth. His teeth are bared. Orwell sends an orderly to get an elephant rifle from a friend.

Analysis

A distinct attribute of Orwell’s style (both generally as a writer, and specifically within this essay) is his explicit or straightforward expository language. He isn’t nuanced or ambiguous in his analyses or critiques, either of character, event, idea or experience. Rather he attempts to spell out his meaning in plain terms. He presents the reader with his interpretations in clear, expository prose. This is not to say that he doesn’t deploy symbol or allegory or doesn’t try to demonstrate or illustrate by way of gestures and images. The story of the shooting of the elephant is itself a strong allegory. Yet when Orwell does make use of devices, he explains how they are working. His interpretation of events is woven through his narrative descriptions of those events.

“ Shooting an Elephant ” is explicitly about the inner conflict that defines Orwell’s experience as a police officer for the British Raj in Burma. It starts with a straightforward discussion of that conflict—what constitutes it and how it manifests—and it proceeds to illustrate it by way of scene and action. In discussing his own inner dilemma as a policeman who opposes his own role, Orwell openly presents a critique of the British Empire. He sees it as tyrannical. His description of it is as a complete and totalizing oppressive force, tightly clamped down on Burmese society. He holds this feeling in a general, theoretical way; but explains how as policeman he has firsthand experience, seeing the Empire’s violence up close, firsthand. His description of the tortured bodies of prisoners in their cells illustrates in physical terms what he refers to when he speaks of the British Empire’s dirty work. In simple language he states that he is against the empire, and for the people of Burma.

Orwell’s dilemma is, in part, absurd. He hates the regime that he represents as a policeman and whose mandate he furthermore enforces. But as he explains, he’s too young at the time of the events of the story to know how to fully recognize the nature of this dilemma, let alone do anything about it. He thus carries on by attempting to play his role as the face of the British Empire, though he is acutely aware of the resentment that the Burmese people feel for him, and specifically he’s aware of how ready they are to ridicule him.

This fear of ridicule is the central motivation that drives Orwell through the story. He’s not afraid of being attacked or physically hurt. He’s afraid of being laughed at. Humiliation is an entirely psychic injury, unlike most other forms of injury. Nothing is lost from humiliation apart from personal pride. While Orwell may theoretically be opposed to his position as a police officer in Burmese society, he is driven to uphold it out of fear of ridicule. When he hears of the elephant rampaging through the bazaar, he feels compelled to show his face, and demonstrate his responsibility.

Upon arriving on the scene and seeing a man dead, he sends for an elephant rifle. But as he explains, this isn’t out of some deeper sense of responsibility; it’s simply to defend himself. He doesn’t yet know that when he finds the elephant it will be peacefully grazing.

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Study Guide for Shooting an Elephant

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