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Passage Analysis: Shooting an Elephant Essay


Shooting an Elephant George Orwell [1936]

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I had halted on the road-> It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do.

The selected passage is an excerpt from George Orwells Shooting an Elephant which is set in a Burmese village. The large scale perspective of this extract is a criticism directed at British Imperialism. The narrator sympathises with the Burmese struggles for independence yet through his official position as a police officer he comes to symbolise the oppressive imperialism the Burmese population are fighting against. The passage opens with the police officer arriving at a scene to observe a tame elephant peacefully eating. Prior to this, the elephant has gone must and ravaged the property of the local Burmese inhabitants and in the process killing an Indian man. The essence of this excerpt is focused on the moral dilemma the narrator is confronted with upon finding himself with an elephant rifle and a mob of Burmese people demanding him to shoot the elephant.

At the time of writing the power of the British Empire had begun to waver, yet Burma remained a province of India and under British control. The historical context of this passage is therefore effective to highlight the political tensions and general level of discontent in Burma at the time. The scene of the elephant is therefore not merely an officials decision of whether or not to shoot the animal but instead a political confrontation played out throe.\ugh a tiny incident holding strong symbolic significance. The key concept that the police mans highest priority is focused around keeping the faade of authority intact has the clear implication of granting the expectations of the mob with unlimited power. The irony and absurdness of the police officer acting on the premises of the expectations of the general public is effectively employed as a tool in convincing the audience of the futility of Imperialism.

The plot revolves around the internal monologue of the police officer, slowly approaching an inevitable conclusion. Centrally stands the inner conflict of the narrator with a strong feeling of compassion with the animal and then the deep-felt frustration in being unable to shed the mask of expectations which weighs him down. The strictly rational line of argument which the narrator begins by propounding develops into emotional frustration with the very concept of Imperialism. The turning point occurs as the police officer turns around and begins to appreciate the amplitude of the situation. The mob represents a paramount complication towards the otherwise sound arguments for not killing the elephant. The final foreshadowing line It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do holds the significance that at this point the narrator has already abandoned all hope of not having to shoot the animal. The anticipation of the crowd is simply too great a burden.

The characterisation of the narrator in this specific excerpt is built around his awareness of the burden of expectations which are bestowed upon him. The event is described in a chronological first person narrative in the past tense which contributes to the air of tension and inevitability as the police officer marches towards the elephant with the rifle in his hand and an upbeat mob in his heels. As the passage opens the narrator is initially portrayed as calm and collected, rationally outlining all the good reasons for not shooting the elephant. Furthermore there is a sympathetic aspect to his character which is expressed through his clear indignation at the mere thought of being forced to shoot the elephant.

Nevertheless, the presence of the crowd never ceases to be a looming factor threatening to interfere with all logic and rationality. Once the police officer turns around he is astounded by the true implications of the situation he finds himself in through providing a new dimension to the character portrayal. This sparks a reflection on imperialism as a whole and is despite the relative insignificance of the event an allusion to the grand scale. This is particularly vivid in the lines when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys and to trail feebly away having done nothing--no that was impossible. These considerations reflect a very intelligent individual left powerless as a direct result of the basic failures of Imperialism. Orwell portrays the officers resentment and bitterness about the whole situation as a symbolic gesture towards the utmost futility of forcing people into submission.

The mood of this excerpt is one of the central elements in effectively conveying Orwells criticism of Imperialism. The air of anticipation of inevitability from the very moment the police officer turns around and glances at the immense crowd he knows that they all expect him to shoot the elephant. This is developed through the drastic change in tone and diction between the rational arguments for not killing the elephant which contrasts effectively to the awe of anticipation from the sea of yellow faces [] looking happy and excited. The idea that the death of the elephant is imminent is cemented through their two thousand wills pressing me forward irresistibly which has the effect of further contributing to an already tense and heavily loaded atmosphere. This develops into an almost theatre-like situation where the unarmed native crowd are suddenly the directors of the scene with the white man being driven forward against his will. Orwell strikingly uses the subsequent change in mood as the officer once again returns to all the arguments against killing the argument this time through appealing to emotion. The sombre mood as the narrator watches the elephant eat with a preoccupied grandmotherly air only emphasises the absurdity in shooting the animal. Despite the strong arguments in favour of not shooting the animal the desire to comply with the expectations of the natives prevails and it is this that protrudes all other arguments in the end.

Another key aspect is the subtle and effective use of irony to further ridicule the absurdity of the situation. Orwell depicts several binary oppositions and contrasting issues which serve to illustrate exactly how futile and damaging imperialism can be. The sole reliance on authority of the British Empire in order to enforce rules is put into perspective by the power of the mob. The narrators own personal views and opinions is also set against the uniform he wears and the role he has to fulfil. The aspect of the immense power of the expectations combined with the narrators own bitterness over having to fulfil this role culminates into creating a scene of striking situational irony. In addition to this it can be said that Orwell utilizes significant dramatic irony in order to further develop the situation. The insight gained into the officers own thoughts and feelings about the absurdity is clearly distinguished from the energetic mob which simply expects that the narrator wears the mask and fulfil the expectations they have.

In conclusion it can be said that the core of this specific excerpt is an anti-imperialistic argument. The reflection on the consequences of Imperialism becomes the most important aspect of the scene as it gives a rare insight into the other side of hegemony and colonialism as a whole. The narrators realisation that he needs to shoot the elephant to maintain the parody of authority the British Empire still possesses is symbolic for the excerpt as a whole. Through the inevitability of the death of the elephant Orwell argues that the slow decline of the British Empire is doing as much to oppress the freedom of others as it is doing to suppress their own. Orwell sees the only possible way of regaining freedom for both parties as ceasing British Imperialism as a whole.

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