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The Shooting An Elephant

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4215 words Published: 10th May 2017

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The narrator, the autobiographical author, at once faces reality the most but also acts as a puppet within the script that is his life. He sees the manipulation of each side of the native people and the conquerors of Burma, himself being a police officer, someone who should be clear cut right and wrong and the law and yet the murkiness of what is the real truth. The largest irony being the elephant in the room – being that he sees he should not kill the elephant and yet feels has to and vacillates in his logic to this conclusion and even once a decision made can see the several interpretations of what is the truth and yet he knows the truth and the truth is that the native people used the “eiron”, the elephant, to manipulate him to kill the elephant which was really based on him not wanting them to laugh at him or humiliation. He deceives himself into believing this when at any time he could take control of the situation.

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The townspeople believe they are manipulating the narrator but the narrators sees that he is being manipulated and yet allows it to happen anyway being carried away with mob rule. The townspeople feel a lack of control of their own destiny similar to the fate of the elephant and yet also feed upon the elephant which is the British control in a enabling situation for all. But is it not really the police officer who manipulates them by asking for elephant rifle knowing that they will assume he wishes to shoot the elephant. So the police officer narrator has created his own conflict by lack of control of a situation because he feels he has no control.

The audience I assume to be the reader and the reader is fooled to think this is a story merely about an incident of a wild elephant yet foreshadowing of the narrator leads to believe is a story about the fall of the British Empire yet is really the fall of an individual and his beliefs about the greater good and lack of control of his own life. The death of the elephant is brought on by even the audience of the reader as once the elephant falls his suffering is unbearable and instead of wishing a recovery for the elephant even the audience wishes a more peaceful death. The story is about the individual and yet still about the whole of the circumstances of British rule but also really about us all as audience. Audience assumes an outside witness, an outside entity that has no control, just as the native townspeople feel they have no control, and just as the British rulers with the police officer representing that in this story feels he also has no control. So are we all audience? To make any decision even no decision is a decision and the feeling of lack of control or will seems the overriding feeling of all involved in the story, yet the purpose of the story is to instigate change and to right wrongs, yet why was a wrong done at all. The audience is helpless but only helpless because of being an audience instead of a participant. I believe that to be the real theme of the story.

Overcoming a sense of helplessness while following what is believed a preset of ideas and codes of conduct and seeing that no decision is a decision. Things do not merely happen on their own. We are all players in the play that is our life and that of all people. The greatest irony of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” is that the many have no control or that there is control. It is the collapse of truth, a collapse of justification, and a self examination of motivation that will overcome the irony of the entire sad sad situation.

Central to Orwell’s short story is the elephant in the room, so large, so unspoken, yet still there no matter what happens. In “Shooting an Elephant” Orwell brilliantly writes a story rich in irony and symbolism like a crystal or kernel of information sparkling with many facets depending on the viewpoint of who is looking at it. To the narrator, the autobiographical George Orwell as is obvious from the beginning, the elephant symbolizes the British Empire and right in paragraph two he foreshadows with “stuck between hatred of empire served and rage against “evil spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible” which identifies the inner rage and conflicting ideas within the thoughts of the narrator made physical by the elephant. The elephant represents his feelings towards the British Empire, toward the feeling that he is merely a puppet. So at an individual level of feelings of doing what is expected of him to save face always and a greater level as a part of the machine that as a whole is the British Empire.

As the narrator approaches the elephant his feelings vacillates between feeling he should not shoot the elephant and that he has to shoot the elephant and is really shown by the weather of the day for weather is always symbolic in a story. The muddy land that takes over and the “cloud, stuffy morning at the beginning of the rains” which also symbolizes the elephant – apparently content and silent eating the grasses yet caught in the mud beneath his feet. The narrator believing he does not need to kill the elephant and the mud making his choice or blaming his choice on the mud and the will of the mob. It is as if stepping in mud where you step to go forward and are pulled in as if by no choice and you break free as you step forward and yet are drawn right back into the mud. It is the mud that is the narrator’s reason for not going closer to elephant and testing its temperament. It is the mud that the native townsperson sunk into a hole of mud.

As the time to shoot the elephant and just after the narrator shoots the elephant the parallel of the symbol of the elephant to the British Empire becomes more apparent and more direct after several change in logic patterns of no he does not have to kill the elephant and yes he does have to kill the elephant. In paragraph & Orwell writes,

“And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the guilty of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. 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. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.”

To the townspeople the elephant also symbolizes the British Empire but in an immediate way it symbolizes their hunger and the elephant was food but also a symbol of their hunger to have freedom, freedom that the elephant in the room symbolized – the British Empire. The attitudes of accepting what is seems prevalent of the townspeople in an ambivalence as to where the elephant went, where he was, and where he was going, and what he did, and yet, once the elephant rifle was sent for, a new sense of importance and destiny and change took over the townspeople as they followed the narrator and crowds grew to see the shooting of the elephant as seen in paragraph five: “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. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meet.” In paragraph 11 when the first shot is fired at the elephant, “head the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd”. In paragraph twelve “it was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead.” Yet the Burmans were already racing past the narrator across the mud to the elephant and in paragraph 13 it state “Burmans were bringing dash and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.” Showing the hunger of the people, the restlessness, the interest when the empire is toppled. So the immediate symbolism of the elephant to the people is food and hunger but the real symbolism is power and self determination and that makes the elephant the British Empire.

Vivid imagery of all the senses paint a picture in the mind of the reader of George Orwell’s “A Hanging” in a way that appears effortless detailed description of what was perhaps a half hour of time filled with imagery that is symbolic in nature and analysis. The opening description of the morning layered with the imagery of the dog running around the yard and the puddle the prisoner had stepped around

The first sentence of the story opens with a vivid picture of the morning, “It was Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light like yellow tin foil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard.” This foreshadows “sickly” human condition of the second sentence, “We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages.” And continuing on to give dimensions and sparse furnishing of plank bed and pot of drinking water of death row. The totality of the picture of degradation like a zoo with prisoners on display out in the open stripped down of their humanity and treated like animals.

What appears interesting is that no one is given a name so it is a timeless tale of any man and anyone’s reaction. The only one given a name was Francis who is the head jailer whom the superintendent of the jail prodding gravel with a stick, the army doctor telling Francis that the prisoner “ought to have been dead by this time” and complain that not ready yet.

Quite early in the story the dog appears and is throughout the story. The imagery of the dog so full of life and running around full of love and friendship, acceptance and noise runs around all the proceedings full of glee. It sees all humans and loves them and goes for the prisoner to lick his face. As a reader and as the narrator transfers feeling and emotion to the dog of living in that moment happy to be alive. But the dog runs futilely around during the execution symbolizing life and human connection. Only the dog appears to whimper and answer the call or chant of the prisoner in his last moments which the author describes not as a religious plea to the gods, not as a please help me, but simply as the tolling of a bell as if only the dog hears the bell and responds like Pavlov’s dogs instinct and ritual have made the humans desensitized to the killings and only the dog can admit feelings. The dog is contained before the execution and when set free afterwards goes to the hung man to sniff him and is the somber shock stillness and whimpering of the shock and horror of killing another life full of life for what reason the dog knows not just as the reader and the narrator knows not. So we can not feel , so feelings are transferred upon the dog.

An important imagery foreshadowed with the description of the morning “of rains” was the puddle. The puddle also seemed a transferring of mood of the entire story to self analysis of what am I really doing here and why from the narrator. The puddle yes is from the rain of the morning but perhaps a reflection of life, a puddle in the life of an ocean of a man, the waters of life, representing perhaps the shortness of a life so a puddle. The puddle is noticed because the condemned man steps around the puddle and the narrator sees that as such a truly human and alive moment “but til that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.”(note again water imagery) So the rational act of thinking and living and analyzing to avoid the puddle stood for the struggling for freedom, a time to react and avoid something simple, a conscious awareness of surroundings and the futility of it all. That “in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone ” one mind less, one world less” which seems a play on words one mind less – mindless, one world less – worthless/worldless – so the mindless making of a worldless with one life less and no one is noticing.

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After the execution the dog “sobered and conscious of having misbehaved itself, slipped after them.” And the prisoners ate their breakfast like any other morning. And a Eurasian boy approaches the narrator stating “do you know, sir, our friend, when he heard his appeal had been dismissed, he pissed on the floor of his cell. From fright.” As an opening line to make people laugh followed by the statement “take one of my cigarettes, sir, do you not admire my new silver case” and states its price as if beauty and enjoyment of life can be sold.

As if to reinforce the imagery in case the reader did not get the sickening return to normal and laugh at another’s grief and death, the only one with a name, Francis, the jailer, tells of horrific cases where the “doctor was obliged to go beneath the gallows and pull the prisoner’s legs to ensure decease. Most disagreeable.” Would not want to do any dirty work since it was noted that the executioner was actually another convict so again distancing themselves from the taking of the life of another human being and making it dehumanized. And again as if we did not get the dehumanizing nature of the environment laughing and whisky all within one hundred yards of the hung man

A powerful letter in response to an age old excuse of “give it time” meaning “never” done in a way that answers each and every accusation of the white religious leaders of the south. The central idea seems to be that the time is NOW and in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And the belief that we are all one people “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” It is a letter of good and of good and justice for all to live as one with steps of non violence towards this stated clearly and honestly and statements backed up by historic leaders of faith and American presidents throughout history as well as going over the history of the suppression of people of African descent throughout the history of the United States and put with detailed empathy of how do you tell a small child she can not go to an amusement park or answer a small boy the question of why do white people hate black people and the simple facts that as a black man travelling across the country denied a place to sleep, denied a place to drink, to eat and makes a very human picture of the realities of this discrimination and moral arguments of why this is wrong.

Several religious leaders throughout time were quoted and several presidents reinforcing King’s statements that justice too long delayed is justice denied. And the truth that individuals may see the moral light and give up unjust posture but as Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals and the only way to fight injustice is with love and passive resistance. The condescending views of the middle of the roaders with shallow acceptance of people of good will is almost worse for their lukewarm acceptance only lacks conviction in a shallow way. Socrates search for truth and saying what was right and early Christians and Jews in their trials for truth and acceptance allies his work with those of early prophets.

Martin Luther King Jr. tells of his own struggles within his own people as he struggles to be the peacemaker between though who have cowed down through centuries of abuse to a quiet acceptance that that is the way things are and the militant black power movement of Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement calling for violence and race wars and to show all his brown, yellow, black, red and white brothers that we are all one and what hurts one, hurts us all. His persuasive essay is flawlessly crafted and brilliant. The tone is precise, neither angry nor bitter nor demanding but simply factual, yet very firm and brilliantly written. It is shown that his patience, faith and love of all humankind will not be broken. No violence on the part of his movement which shows the violent nature of those whose hearts he is trying to change, to force to change to follow laws of the constitution and the supreme court guaranteeing equal rights for all and invariable rights to pursue life and happiness. His answer to being called an extremist is “Was Jesus an extremist?” and quoted the bible of Jesus words “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Showing how the persecution of those in his movement is like persecuting Christ. The hypocrisy and conformity of the “religious” leaders and people of the south is shown in black and white. “The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century” Telling how the youth of the country are dishearten with disgust and disappointment of the church “But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future…. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.” The decisive hour is now for the Church to be truly Godly or to live in hollowness.

Martin Luther King Jr. even answers the praise of the “peaceful” nature of the Birmingham police and detailed listings of brutalities and anything but peaceful but notes that publicly when there are others they go through the appearances of appearing peaceful.

The use of language easily understood by the simplest man makes his arguments easy to follow., The structure of the letter addressing one by one the points of the letter of religious white southern leaders makes it easy for them to follow each of his answers to their premises. The style of writing is that of an enlightened and deeply religious and loving man who desires to leave in peace with all his brothers as one. The tone is very professional and factual, trying not to be inflammatory or exaggerated but simply the truth with moments of windows into the despair and injustices his people have faced for centuries. His statements that those in power never want to give up power willingly that it is up to the oppressed to show the inequalities that exist and demand to be treated with justice and dignity. The human quality of emotion backing in faith and history and morality all played a role in determining that the time is now, that waiting for the right time is never. King’s control of rhetoric and emotion is that of a master deeply intellectual and deeply right making it quite easy to follow his premises. King persuasive at all times even when appearing to merely state the facts. He is a master at the craft of the persuasive essay by bringing the reader to the conclusions himself of what King wants the reader to see. King is scientific by sticking to the facts like a lawyer setting precedent throughout the sands of time about similar injustices of a people. It was inspiring and powerful and left the reader feeling that they would be a complete idiot not to agree with King.

The three texts of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” and “The Hanging” along with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” are three powerful and disturbing pieces of literature documenting the injustice, the pain and the conflicting emotions of a time of civil unrest and change. Orwell appears to write essays that may be taking as fiction but really are autobiographical. King of course is not making any metaphors except to explain his cause in a simple direct and persuasive essay way. The fight is his own and he is an active participant in the fight. Orwell is more of an outsider, an audience, someone who is in the drama but feels no control beyond observations but feels drawn to speak of injustice. So both authors are trying to write to right a wrong, King being far more clear in what he wants and how he sees the world tracing it back throughout time in the history of religion and the history of the United States and great evils and injustices overcome throughout time. He is definitely a man of action and leadership fearless, clear headed and in complete control of his emotions and his logic in his judgement and in his quest for what is right. He is definitely a black and white argument and one can clearly see the great wrong being enacted in society in that time and place.

Orwell is far more grey and overlapping viewpoints and agendas that in reality is what life is – a series of grey that is not always so clear until looked back at. He also seems driven to write about the wrongs he witnesses in society but also writes in a more literary way of literature that sometimes is unclear whether based on historical fiction or true autobiographical writing of events. I believe they were based on experiences he lived through and the guilt he felt of these incidents, the part he played in an injustice, the guilt he felt of not being strong enough to stand sure and say what he meant either by the mass mentality of the crowd and what he felt they wanted to avoid humiliation or laughter or just to have that moment of being powerful and important in the case of “Shooting an Elephant”. “The Hanging” was more of a true dispair of seeing an equally as docile small man hung as he was of the peacefully eating grass elephant he shot that had a long and labored death of suffering. In “Shooting an Elephant” he was the authority in charge and he could have changed the destiny of that helpless animal and felt great guilt at doing what he had done. In “The Hanging” there was nothing he could have done except question the way things were and why. He did not have information on why the small peaceful man should be hung but he did have observations of the nature of life and the clinging to life and a life ripped out and cut short right in the prime of life and did any man have that right to do that to another man.

All three essays are civil injustices of oppressed people of a people with a master who were objectified and treated second best or unimportant and of a people not content to be served injustice any more. Orwell saw his part in their oppression and felt tremendous guilt and lack of control as a puppet on a string who does the will of the people and he even states how tyranny of the white man does nothing but lose freedom. The iron fist is so rigid it has no choice and the fear of a united uprising made those in power there to do the will of what the native people wanted to keep the peace. The guilt Orwell felt is clear and murky at the same time – a conflicting of memory and remembered feelings of the time and the hindsight that maturity can give that you realize you did not really know things as clearly as you thought you did and the sadness that the dying elephant is the sadness of the dying British empire and the order and infrastructure was quite high with British control and now he can see perhaps they were not initially better off, but still he knew the people of Burma needed to be self determined, needed freedom. In “The Hanging” the issue is more of does anyone have the right to take the life of another, does anyone have the right to take the waters of life of a man and make him a puddle cut short his life in his prime and that argument could be applicable to many times and places. In this essay Orwell allows himself to question more clearly and to allow emotion which he transfers upon the dog in the essay as the dog is full of life and sees all people as people, prisoner and guard alike as men and perhaps what Orwell really wants is to have all men be equal and not be in place to judge another or pass the judgment of others for something he had no information about any wrong. Again a very grey argument but clearly more black and white than “Shooting an Elephant “


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