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Old April 19th, 2010, 01:12 PM   #1

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Orwell, Shooting an Elephant


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I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. 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. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of "must" was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.

George Orwell, Shooting An Elephant , 1936.


Text available at: http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/887/


Open for discussion on Sunday, 9 May, 2010.




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Old April 28th, 2010, 01:25 PM   #2

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Re: Orwell, Shooting an Elephant




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Last edited by Pedro; May 1st, 2010 at 08:19 PM.
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Old May 1st, 2010, 08:17 PM   #3

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Re: Orwell, Shooting an Elephant


One of the advantages of advanced years is to have had time to read over and over and over a favorite author. I have read everything by and about George Orwell and done it over and again. With rereading there is always a new discovery. Finding something new is not because he put it there, but because his natural instincts as a writer are always at work. That kind of talent one is born with and no amount of study can make it happen. I know. I have tried. It pleases me greatly to write this introduction. I took extra care with this one because it is my way of acknowledging the master.

In lieu of a biography I have posted a few photos that may be new to you.
http://historumbookdiscusion.blogspot.com/

A kind of biography in pictures. Enjoy! Enjoy!


“Shooting an Elephant”

Shooting an Elephant was first published in New Writing, in1936. Written some 10 years after the event described, the essay is clearly not a simple recollection but a skillful integration of experience, idea, and artistic employment of language. From that perspective, it has come to be seen as a classic 20th-century example of the art of the essay.

“In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

The essay’s striking opening sentence captures the conflict between the rulers and the ruled in imperial Burma, translated into complex and wry personal terms. Orwell is describing his situation as a police officer, dealing with a long-suppressed native population, beginning to express its anger in indirect, infuriating ways.

Caught between theoretical and intellectual support for the Burmese cause and a gut level fury over the personal abuse to which he is subjected, he is intensely frustrated. He is convinced that imperialism is “an evil thing.” But he does not speak out against it, partly because he thinks of the Raj as an “unbreakable tyranny,” destined to rule forever. At the same time, he feels rage against “the evil-spirited, little beasts” with their ability to infuriate him.

He did not realize at the time that the British Empire was dying. Nor did the Burmese realize that British rule was a great deal better than the regimes destined to supplant it. His dilemma takes on a very real form when he is told to respond to a rogue elephant that had broken its chain and is disrupting a certain quarter of town. When he arrives at the quarter, he discovers that the animal has already killed a man, a coolie whom the elephant had caught with its trunk, and with its foot, “ground him into the earth.” At that point he dispatches an orderly to bring him an elephant rifle and five bullets.

Orwell advances to where the elephant is, a rice paddy. Walking behind him as he advances is virtually the entire population of the quarter, eager to see what will happen. Once he comes within range of the animal, he realizes that the elephant’s wildness seems to be passing. It is peacefully eating grass, from all appearances no longer a threat.

Moreover, an elephant is a valuable piece of property as a worker, “comparable to a huge and costly piece of machinery.” He decides not to shoot the animal, but as he turns, he discovers that the crowd at his back has now grown to as many as 2,000 people: “And suddenly I realized I would have to shoot the elephant after all.” He recognizes that he is trapped in the role of the “superior” white man who has traded in his freedom in order to create a powerful impression on the natives. He has to do what is expected of him. He has to play the role he wrote for himself when he sent for the rifle. To do nothing at this point would make him the object of ridicule and laughter. “And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

Planting himself a safe distance from the elephant, he fires the first shot, bringing the great beast to its knees. With the second shot, the animal rises to his feet, but after a third shot, “his hind legs collapsed behind him . . . and down he came . . . with a crash that seemed to shake the ground.” Although the animal can no longer move, it does not die, even when Orwell fires two more shots close-up and a number of shots with a smaller rifle. Still the creature’s agony continues. Finally, Orwell walks away, hearing later that it took the elephant a half hour to die while the crowd stripped the body “almost to the bones.”

In the aftermath, opinion is divided among the European community as to whether the shooting was necessary. The official inquiry finds the shooting justified because of the death of the coolie. But Orwell knows the real reason he killed the elephant: “to avoid looking like a fool.”

As in the case of Orwell’s other Burma-based essay, “A Hanging,” doubts have been cast on the factual basis of “Shooting an Elephant,” largely the result of the difficulty in pinning down its time and place. But the statement of George Stuart, an engineer, stationed at Moulmeinat the same time as Orwell, recalled a Sunday morning when word reached a local European club that a rogue elephant had broken loose. Stuart saw Orwell, rifle in hand, set off in an old car to investigate the incident.

Stuart indicated that the elephant belonged to a large lumber company, not the hapless Indian mentioned in the essay. As a result, Orwell was punished for killing a valuable piece of property.

The punishment consisted of a transfer from the relative comfort of Moulmein to the remote outpost of Katha, the close model for the village of Kyauktada in Burmese Days. In that novel the hero John Flory tells his beloved Elizabeth Lackersteen that he once shot an elephant.

The celebrated opening sentence of the essay suggests not only the atmosphere that colonialism generates but the perverse satisfaction that such hatred can produce in the one who is hated. To be singled out for jeering and insults is to enjoy a certain celebrity, providing another motive for the decision to give the crowd what it wants. But it is clear that the essay’s main purpose is to show that the real “white man’s burden” is the recognition that he is the prisoner of his image. He must do what is expected of him rather than the decent, rational thing. As a British policeman, he is the symbol of imperial power. Not to use it—in the mind of the confused, beleaguered young man—is to undermine that power. He has yet to distinguish the show of power from the real thing.

His dilemma is illustrated in the painfully detailed description of the dying elephant. Peacefully munching on grass, his rage now quieted, to kill the elephant now seems a senseless murder, another victim of imperialism. As if to add an additional moral, Orwell tells us that, despite the numerous bullets he pumps into the creature, he is unable to finish it off. He leaves the animal still alive, further indication that the vaunted power of the empire is not omnipotent. There is something in the elephant that predates and transcends that power.

Thus, when he fires his first shot, he sees the animal differently: “. . . one could have imagined him thousands of years old.” One possibility is clear: The great beast represents traditional Burmese culture reasserting itself, like the Burmese students and Buddhist monks, disturbing the pax britannica, and therefore something that must be put down. On the other hand, in Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin quotes the interpretation of a Burmese professor she met there: The Burmese word ‘oan’ means literally “to swarm,” and it was the power of “oan” or collective curiosity, that made the British policeman shoot the elephant.

Collective curiosity or the power the oppressed hold over the oppressor—something was at work and was caught by Orwell’s artistry.

There are other facets of this essay that also have their validity but I save those for Historums more erudite posters. I too prefer “to avoid looking like a fool”.
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Old May 1st, 2010, 09:09 PM   #4
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Re: Orwell, Shooting an Elephant


Thanks Pedro for introducing this brief but deeply analytical essay (like 3267 words).

Ironically and paradoxically, it seems someone shot an elephant in Iraq solely to avoid looking a fool...
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Old May 2nd, 2010, 12:17 AM   #5

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Re: Orwell, Shooting an Elephant


Wonderful post, my friend!
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Old May 2nd, 2010, 05:16 AM   #6
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Re: Orwell, Shooting an Elephant


My interpretation was that the elephant represented imperialism and its decline. As if the protagonist suddenly had an epiphany regarding imperialism.
Quote:
He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old..
Further, that his shooting the elephant because he "must" was enforcement of imperialist views which he found repugnant and hated.
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Old May 2nd, 2010, 05:29 AM   #7

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Re: Orwell, Shooting an Elephant


Yes, this is about Imperialism and its roles and duties. In this particular incident , the duties are those expected of the ruling elite, to play the game of protector, or at least provider of sport or entertainment. Shooting this elephant is certainly something that Blair didn't want to do but that was basically forced to do by the rules of this Imperial System. So, in spite of his wises, he shot the elephant.



I really like Orwell's ( Blair's) works and would like to read more. Good choice!
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Old May 3rd, 2010, 05:18 AM   #8
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Re: Orwell, Shooting an Elephant


I particularly liked these two quotes :
Quote:
I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly
and
Quote:
I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.
A good description of the power someone's will can have over another person,and how strong that power can be. I think the fact that they were with so many was of greater impact for the strength of this willpower than the fact that they were natives.

Quote:
For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives" and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him.
IMO if it had only been two or three natives, he might not have shot the elephant...
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Old May 3rd, 2010, 05:31 AM   #9

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Re: Orwell, Shooting an Elephant


Quote:
Originally Posted by Thalina View Post
IMO if it had only been two or three natives, he might not have shot the elephant...
I am ssure that you are correct.

I read somewhere about the British in India, that an important Englishman there made a statement to the effect of numbers, that the Indians only need to turn at once and urinate on us to drown us... the implications being that the absuridty of numbers on both sides of the Imperial System.
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Old May 3rd, 2010, 10:21 AM   #10

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Re: Orwell, Shooting an Elephant


Quote:
Originally Posted by Cicero View Post
I am ssure that you are correct.

I read somewhere about the British in India, that an important Englishman there made a statement to the effect of numbers, that the Indians only need to turn at once and urinate on us to drown us... the implications being that the absuridty of numbers on both sides of the Imperial System.
That has to be the greatest political image anyone ever put in my head.!
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