“Shooting an Elephant“
Reflecting on an incident in which he was compelled to shoot an elephant out of embarrassment (or the evasion of such) while working as a police officer in Burma, George Orwell describes the ambivalence inherent in working for an evil empire against a population of unruly citizens.
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. (149)
Orwell describes the incident itself as “tiny” (149) and very simple: a rogue elephant had been delivered too early while its handler and master were diverted to a different town and it was ravaging the bazaar. After being called, Orwell takes his rifle that he knows is too small to bring down the elephant purely with the intention of shooing it away with the noise if the occasion to do such presents itself. But upon seeing the police officer with a gun following the elephant’s path of destruction, the citizens become excited at the possibility of violence. “They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot,” (151).
Finding the elephant peacefully grazing in a field, the young Orwell considers his options and with a crowd of “two thousand at the least” (152) watching, Orwell finds he has no option. “The people expected [the shooting] of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly,” (152). Orwell feels like a puppet, the alleged “leader” white man armed in a sea of brown, unarmed faces, compelled to do the bidding of the empire’s tyranny.
Orwell shoots the elephant and it eventually dies, resulting in some controversy. Orwell reflects that it is fortunate that the elephant had killed a man on its rampage, meaning he was in some way justified in ending the animal’s life. Some police officers agree with Orwell’s decision, others do not, but none realize his true motives. “I often wondered any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool,” (156).
Also of note:
- As to disrespect and abuse from natives towards police officers: “The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all.” (148)
- Should he not have shot the elephant: “The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” (153)
- “The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.” (156)
Orwell’s essay on one of the best-known writers explores why Dickens is as popular as he is (Orwell calls him an “institution” ), what Dickens’ politics were (are), and Orwell questions the popular view of Dickens as a revolutionary.
About Dickens’ politics, Orwell decides that essentially, he has none. According to Orwell, Dickens steers clear of discussing policy or law, focusing instead on the individual. “Dickens’ criticism of society is almost exclusively moral” (51). Rather than giving solutions to pervasive problems, Dickens aims a purely moral eye at social questions, attacking “the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places” (51). Rather, Dickens only critiques policy and society in as much as he can critique an individual.
If the wicked nobleman could somehow have turned over a new leaf, like Scrooge, there would have been no [French] Revolution, no jacquerie no guillotine—and so much the better. (57)
In effect, according to Orwell, Dickens’ does not target injustice as a social problem, as “his target is not so much society as ‘human nature’ ” (51). According to Orwell, this is anti-revolutionary, especially since the values Dickens is using to frame his morality are classical and fairly conservative. In fact, as far as his opposition to the French Revolution and especially the Reign of Terror in A Tale of Two Cities is concerned, “It is a strange thing that Dickens, much more in sympathy with the ideas of the Revolution than most Englishmen of his time, should have played a part in creating [the impression of the French Revolution as ‘no more than a pyramid of severed heads’]” (59).
George Orwell’s “Headmaster Ritual.”
I’ve just started A Collection of Essays by George Orwell and finished the first one, “Such, Such Were the Joys…” which relates some of Orwell’s misery between the ages of eight and fourteen at Crossgates, a somewhat prestigious boarding school. Rather than be yet another insufferable chronicle of childhood angst, Orwell instead uses the essay to describe what he sees as the cause of difficult childhoods: ignorance and innocence. The inability to see the world accurately leads to confusion and incorrect suspicions and theories about how things work—see Orwell’s confusion of “The Sixth Form,” a group of boys well-respected by the school and therefore given the task of beating naughty boys, with “Mrs. Form,” an “improbable name” (2) young Orwell assigned to a stranger who was nearby when he misheard the original threat of the Sixth Form—which is compounded in the atmosphere of a boarding school, where the flow of all information is rigidly controlled by the institution.