By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Shooting an Elephant’ is a curious work in George Orwell’s canon. It is often reprinted with his essays, but in some ways Orwell’s account of his time working as a policeman in Burma can be regarded as closer to a short story than a factual essay. Indeed, doubt has been cast over whether the events he outlines in ‘Shooting an Elephant’ ever happened to Orwell himself.
Let’s take a closer look at what Orwell tells us in this essay (story?), and what that, in turn, tells us about his attitudes to imperialism and other things.
‘It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided.’
When Orwell spots the elephant stuffing grass into its mouth, apparently calm after its violent actions in the town, his first reaction is to want to avoid shooting the elephant. However, he is not merely gripped by a desire not to hurt a creature that is, at that moment, not posing a threat to anyone.
He is also thinking in pragmatic terms, both as an imperial man in service in Burma and as a member of that community, who value elephants for their practical use. It will only be later on in the essay that Orwell will more thoroughly ‘humanise’ the elephant (see below). However, even then he soon returns to the issue of the animal’s ‘value’ to its owner.
‘I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.’
This quotation appears towards the end of ‘Shooting an Elephant’, shortly after the moment when Orwell realises that he will have to shoot the elephant that has trampled a man to death, simply because the watching crowd of native Burmese people expect him to do so.
But what does Orwell mean when he argues that the white British (or, more broadly, European) man destroys his own freedom when he seeks to oppress others? Surely he is destroying their freedom, while continuing to enjoy his own?
Not so. For, as Orwell goes on to explain, when a white man becomes a tyrant and seeks to control other people, he himself becomes nothing more than a ‘hollow, posing dummy’ who is condemned to the role of performer, doomed always to strive to ‘impress’ those whom he lords it over. After all, he wants to assert that he is ‘better’ than they are: hence this desire to impress them. Weirdly, he needs their respect.
‘He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.’
This quotation appears shortly after the one quoted above. The ‘white man’, or European coloniser, has to adopt a particular persona – a fake identity, almost – in order to perform for the ‘natives’ he supposedly rules over.
And then his whole personality, his true identity, becomes lost as he starts to become nothing but the persona he has adopted, until his true self has been completely lost.
‘And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.’
One of the masterstrokes of Orwell’s essay – if we can call it an essay – is the way he takes this personal anecdote involving his time serving in imperial Burma and draws much bigger political conclusions from it. And as so often with Orwell, he focuses on some surprising or unexpected aspect of the topic under discussion.
Here, we might expect him to focus on power or cruelty, given the crowd’s bloodlust for the poor elephant and the imperial setting of the ‘story’. And in a strange way, power is the subject of Orwell’s essay. But he comes at it from a surprising angle: the idea of laughter and humiliation. It doesn’t matter how powerful the white man thinks he is, or how firmly he rules over the ‘natives’: they are many and the white man is small in number.
And once you have a crowd of Burmese people and just one white British man, you effectively have an audience which has a peculiar kind of power: the power to make the white man feel small by laughing at his cowardice or foolishness.
‘But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have.’
Note here how Orwell ‘humanises’ the elephant. This quotation is especially relevant when contrasted with the ‘machinery’ comment quoted above: to the Burmese people, the elephant is a powerful tool, a means of conveying goods or of getting from one place to another, similar to a car in the wealthy West.
But for Orwell, the elephant seems kindly and gentle, even slightly pathetic. He wants us not only to have sympathy for the elephant itself, and not just for himself either, but for the situation: the elephant in that moment does not deserve to die, and Orwell does not want to kill it, and this difficult situation would not have arisen if the British Raj did not exist.
‘I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.’
What better place to conclude this pick of the most important quotations from ‘Shooting an Elephant’ than with the closing words of the essay? Orwell confesses that fear of being laughed at – to call back to the earlier quotation cited above – was not only his main reason but in fact his sole motivation for shooting the elephant: something he did not want to do, for a range of reasons, both moral and pragmatic or financial.
But he was forced to, because imperialism makes the white man perform in a certain way for those he is ‘in charge’ of. Although Orwell’s anecdote is focused on a very small and isolated incident, he has shone a light on an unpleasant but less frequently recognised aspect of imperialism: humiliation, and the fear of it, which can shift the power balance between imperial ruler and subject.