Imperialism: Machinations and Motives In George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant
Written by Meghan Elcheson
for Prof. Robert Rose
In George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant,” a British Imperial officer stationed in Moulmein grapples with his ambivalence towards his empire and the citizens of Burma as he comes to discover the true nature of imperialism. Orwell’s essay presents an English narrator caught in a moral dilemma when he is asked to deal with a local elephant that has gone “must.” At the height of the narrator’s internal conflict, he forgoes his conscience in order to fulfill his obligation to the empire. His decision to shoot the elephant is pivotal in shaping his understanding of the machinations of despotic governments. Orwell uses the character’s internal conflict and individual experience to extrapolate a broader view of the nature and motives of imperialism. In one of the essay’s most renowned paragraphs, Orwell’s use of symbolism, including the use of theatrical imagery, allows him to build an analogy that likens imperialism and its actions to that of a show. In doing so, Orwell makes the irony of the empire’s occupation evident as the narrator realizes that the controller becomes the controlled. The character comes to understand that the true nature of imperialism causes the imperialists to become imprisoned by their own exacting of control and that he himself is only a puppet bending to the will of the occupied locals.
The narrator likening himself to “an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind” and “a sort of hollow, posing dummy” is an example of important symbolism Orwell uses to construct a metaphor for imperialism (3). Orwell further uses theatrical imagery throughout the passage to build upon this metaphor. The narrator describes the crowd gathered around as they eagerly await his course of action: “It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. […] They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick” (3). In this instance, the narrator has become a type of performer goaded on by the “two thousand wills pressing [him] forward, irresistibly” (3). The crowd expects him to shoot the elephant. The performer becomes limited in his actions by the will and expectation of the audience. The symbolism is continued with the narrator’s remark: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it” (3). This supports the metaphor for imperialism having parallels with a show or performance; the performers (oppressors) act in a certain manner and the audience (oppressed) come to expect certain actions and behaviors of their oppressors. The imperialists have their freedom restricted by the image that they have created for themselves. Their faces grow to fit these expectations despite their moral or personal conflicts. In order to maintain control over the populace, the imperialists cannot deviate from this crafted guise and the narrator’s inner conflict stems from this resistance to becoming the face that fits the mask.
From the beginning of Orwell’s essay, the narrator is presented as being wrought with internal conflict. Despite admitting that “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better” (1), he describes simultaneously his dislike for the locals who make his job impossible: “All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible” (1). The narrator struggles with this duality of hating imperialism and siding with the locals while not being able to vocalize his feelings. He describes being “oppressed […] with an intolerable sense of guilt” at seeing the “dirty work of Empire at close quarters” (1), yet because he wears the uniform of an imperial officer the locals do not view him as being against the empire and treat him with animosity. This treatment in turn makes his job difficult and feeds into the idea that imperialism forces people to act or perform in certain ways. He describes “having to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East” (1). This internal conflict is important in shaping the way the narrator thinks of imperialism because it allows a closer inspection of the mechanisms by which imperialism is sustained. The occupied people treating him badly effectively reduces his empathy towards them and helps to confine him to the domineering, cruel archetype of the imperialist. At the height of the narrator’s internal conflict, in front of an immense crowd of locals all of whom are eager to see him kill the elephant, he must decide between his conscience and their will. During this excerpt of the essay, the elephant is described as calmly grazing, his period of “must” more than likely subsided. The narrator understands that shooting the elephant is not an imperative. From the viewpoint of the empire, he would be destroying costly machinery and he personally does not wish to kill the elephant, but the eager gaze of the crowd threatens to humiliate him if he backs down from the task. The English narrator is now presented with the conflict of indulging his ego and avoiding disgrace or doing nothing and looking a fool.
Horrified by the idea of shooting the elephant while equally fearful of looking foolish, the narrator’s ambivalence grows as the essay leads up to Orwell’s renowned epiphany paragraph. The narrator finds himself reflecting on the consequences of shooting the elephant, knowing full well that not only would shooting it entail dealing with its owner afterwards, but also “being a poor shot with a rifle” (3) there is a great risk of the elephant causing him grievous bodily harm. Adding to his ambivalence is the undeniable fact that, with its period of “must” presumably over, the elephant does not need to be shot. Despite the narrator’s conscience having a firm stance on this matter, he is certain he will act against his will: “I had committed myself to doing it [shooting the elephant] when I sent for the rifle” (3). Standing in front of the large crowd with his gun in hand, he understands that he will look daft and be laughed at, that in fact the empire itself will be laughed at if he turns away without having done anything. It is this idea of saving face that Orwell uses to invoke his metaphor for imperialism. The narrator realizes that despite being against his conscious will, he is going to kill the elephant because “a sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things” (3). It is what the crowd expects of him as the imperialist. In this way, the narrator feels as though his hands are tied. His role as an imperialist has stripped away his freedom of action and of self, much like it strips away the freedom of the people whom it oppresses.
Shooting the elephant is an important personal experience for the narrator because it allows him to apply this experience to establish a better understanding of the oppression and strife caused by despotic governments. The act of shooting the elephant allows for a much broader perspective of imperialism as a whole. This understanding culminates in the narrator’s final epiphany; he comes to the stark realization that because of imperialism he is being forced to do something against his will. His freewill is held captive in much the same manner as the occupied people are held captive. Through imperialism, he is confined to wearing a mask and can see how eventually his face would grow to fit it. He articulates this with the assertion that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys” (3). The narrator’s understanding of despotic governments is that they seek to oppress and claim rights to land and resources by way of manipulating the occupied population and those loyal to the empire. The narrator’s seemingly forced decision to indulge his ego and maintain that he “do[es] definite things” and “knows his mind” (3) is important in understanding the way he thinks of imperialism. Imperialism imposes upon the occupied the idea that they are not as civilized and that the way in which the imperialists live is superior. With this delusion of superiority comes the crafted image of the imperialist that must be upheld, lest the locals perceive their occupiers as weak or unsure of themselves. The narrator comes to understand what this crafted image really means when he makes the decision to shoot the elephant. “My whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at” (3) is the ironic line the narrator utters to summarize this concept. Shooting the elephant allows him to uphold the image he has been forced to uphold since being stationed in Moulmein, and it is with this that he realizes the “futility of the white man’s dominion in the East” (3).
The imperialist will forever try to maintain the guise of superiority to justify the cruel exploitation of the people they occupy. What the narrator describes as a “tiny incident in itself” (1) leads him to the epiphany that with the exacting of control comes the paradoxical loss of freedom, “for it is the condition of his rule [the white man turned tyrant] that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’” (3).
About the Author: Meghan Elcheson is a Dawson Continuing Education student with a great appreciation for literature; she has long been at a loss for shelving in her home. Meghan’s focuses include medicine and chemistry and she enjoys writing and reading about these topics in great length. She is currently catching up on her reading list and looking forward to future literary endeavours.