George Orwell’s “Shooting the Elephant” Essay
Due to Industrialization, Britain colonized many states. They were a world power indeed, wielding influence over Africa, India, China, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and North and South America. However, the colony declined in the early part of the 20th century, due to the First and Second World War, as Britain lost some of its investments to pay for the war. (Yaffe, 1993) After these wars, the United States has risen as a World Power itself, replacing the Sterling with Dollar as the world currency. Even though the ruling elite of the British did everything they can to re-establish Britain as the leading World Power, United States became even more powerful, as Britain was left paying debts they incurred during the wars.
Yaffe (1993) said that in reality, the British aristocracy exploited oppressed peoples to dominate the world economy. There were no ‘gentlemanly ways,’ (Cain and Hopkins, as quoted by Yaffe, 1993) in which the British used these people to get their “rentier incomes and material basis of their power and status.” (Yaffe, 1993)
This perhaps was the basis of George Orwell in writing his essay, “Shooting the Elephant” in 1936. The writer believes that Orwell had the downfall of the British Empire in mind when he wrote this essay, and that Britain was symbolized by the elephant.
Orwell began his essay by describing the anti-European culture of the people in Moulmein, Lower Burma. People jeered at him, being a European, and baited him whenever they can. But even though he was treated that way, he stated that he was actually pro-Burmese instead of siding with his European counterparts.
“Secretly, of course, I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.”
Orwell then proves Yaffe’s (1993) statement that the British exploited the oppressed people by narrating this part;
“The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred bottoms of the men bogged with bamboo — all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.”
He really hated his job, because he did not subscribe to the idea of British Imperialism, and the Burmese were giving him a hard time. It left him in the middle, explicitly stated in these words;
“… I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down … upon the will of prostate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.”
The writer thinks that the above quoted lines of the essay were the foundation of Orwell comparing Britain to an elephant. He told the story of an elephant crushing down a “black, Dravidian, Coolie,” and his participation in the whole affair.
He continued to narrate the events which led to the killing of the elephant. The writer will then list down the important scenes which prove that the elephant symbolizes Britain.
The first important part in his narration was the way the old women shooed the naked children so that they will not see the dead coolie. It was a symbolism of the suffering of the natives in Burma.
Orwell mentioned that he was an Anglo-Indian. In the essay, we could say that Orwell used himself as the symbolism for the other countries which Britain colonized. He was asked by the natives to “do something” about the elephant. The writer hypothesizes that he represents the United States.
The next important scene would be Orwell considering the elephant as harmless. But because of the crowd behind him (which perhaps symbolizes the whole world), he shot and killed the elephant. It seems that the change from sterling to dollar was depicted in this scene.
Orwell continued on to narrate about the suffering of the elephant, and how long it took before it died. The crowd brought dash and baskets to get its meat. It sounds like how the colonized countries of British slowly became possessions of other countries, or became independent. India was freed of the British in 1947. Other Asian countries were decolonized one by one starting the late 50’s. (Cody, 1988) Britain left Hongkong only in 1997. Burma gained independence in 1947, 11 years after Orwell wrote the essay.
Of course, we cannot say that Orwell really intended to do so when he wrote the essay in 1936. The writer is just astonished at how the events of the downfall of the British Empire fit into Orwell’s essay, after reading about the history of British imperialism. But then, who knows? Maybe the essay was some prophetical message of the downfall of Britain.
Cody, David. “British Empire.” 1988. The Victorian Web. Accessed 21, April 2007 <http://www.victorianweb.org/history/empire/Empire.htmlure >
Orwell, George. 1936. “Shooting an Elephant.” The Literature Network. Accessed 21 April 2007 <http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/887/>
Yaffe, David. August/September 1993. “A History of British Imperialism.” Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!. Accessed 21 April 2007 <http://www.rcgfrfi.easynet.co.uk/marxism/articles/f114-hoi.htm>
Cain, P.J. and Hopkins, A.G. “British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion 1688-1914.” As quoted in: Yaffe, David. August/September 1993. “A History of British Imperialism.” Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!. Accessed 21 April 2007 <http://www.rcgfrfi.easynet.co.uk/marxism/articles/f114-hoi.htm>