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Coolies or an Elephant?

Posted by C Moon on November 28, 2007

Literature often makes a commentary on the society in which it is conceived. In his essay Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell employs satire to show that power and the ways in which power is misused are dangerous and destructive both to the victims and to those who wield it. Overall, I felt uncomfortable with this essay, not because it was weak in delivering its themes, but because both the Burmese and George Orwell described in the essay totally contradicted my values. In my view, they are examples of hypocrisy, arrogance, and cowardice.

George Orwell recounts the times when he served as a police officer in Burma, for its colonial master, England. He states that imperialism is “an evil thing,” and that he is on the side of the Burmese. However, he is one of those who are enslaved by his own superiority over the Burmese. Though he is aware that he has nothing superior to the Burmese, he is obsessed by the burden that he has to look better than them. Hence, he says, “A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives’; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened.” He is driven by the others’ expectations rather than his own will. Although he “knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him [the elephant],” he becomes anxious about his status among the Burmese and shoots the elephant, feeling unable to resist. Contrary to his stance, he says, “… I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant.” I think that George Orwell in the essay is rather childish, justifying himself by arguing that it was not his fault but that the others were to be blamed. He wasn’t able to stand what he had done, desperately trying to escape from the dying elephant staring back at him. He tries to convince himself that he did what he could do in that situation and that he is not responsible because others made him do so.

The attitudes of the Burmese also bother me greatly. I agree with Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The Burmese depicted in the essay seem to be those who are weak to the strong and strong to the weak. As can be seen from the following sentence, “No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress,” they did not want to risk what they had, and thus gave up their liberty. They detest the Europeans, including George Orwell, but they take all that is offered to a colony. As can be seen from the following quote, “As I started forward practically the whole population of the quarter flocked out of the houses and followed me. They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant,” they expect protection. After the elephant was shot, “The Burmans were already racing past me [George Orwell] across the mud,” to feast themselves with the meat readied in front of them by an oppressor whom they did not like. Though George Orwell claims that the Burmese controlled him as a way to get what they wanted, it seems to me that the Burmese, like hyenas waiting for the kill, had only the desire for meat. The Burmese had adapted to the colonial system, feared the power, and thus forgot to rise against the imperialists.

Furthermore, I felt especially uncomfortable with Orwell’s conversation with other Europeans, “… 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.” It was a thought formed by being raised in the imperialist nation. Both the oppressed and the oppressors later ended up losing their liberty. The imperial system dictated their relationships to one another and barred them from ever stepping out of these roles. The simple decision of whether to shoot the elephant left Orwell’s hands as soon as he began to live while suppressing his beliefs in Burma.

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Photo Credits: “Balance” by Bethany L King on Flickr

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2 Responses to “Coolies or an Elephant?”

  1. John P said

    Yes, George Orwell uses satire as you said, that’s why it’s so much more fun to read it.

    I think you are accepting this essay too literally. He is not “one of those who are enslaved by his own superiority over the Burmese,” but he is depicting himself so in order to satirize the British regime in Burma.

  2. Brian said

    I already wrote a long comment but was erased by the stupid website, so I’ll cut it short. It is an interesting perspective but I feel that it also might be otherwise. A writer does not always convey or write what he thinks, and on the contrary writes sometimes opposite to show the grotesqueness and such of the opposite. This is often true when he uses satire or irony.
    Anyways, I also felt that there are some minor racisim in this essay when he says something about getting information in the East. So I agree that Orwell cannot be totally justified. However about the remarks of him feeling superior inside, I want to put forward another opinion. I think he is rather trying to show that although is a rational man and a person who is on the Burmese side in heart, imperialism affects him so that he “has to keep face”. It is not necessarily the status of the “superior white man” that he has to defend at the moment, nor is he motivated by the urge to not be seen as an equal to the Burmese, but the will against being ridiculed by the crowd. It is the massive expectation and urge of people that makes him fear(although this might be too much of a speculation) the consequences, which might even endanger his life. And rather than being childish, he does not justify himself, but rather acknowledges that it has been wrong to kill the elephant(this is what the last conversation seems to show). He is saying that imperialism is bad to the extent that a normal person(himself) who writes this kind of work against imperialism was affected in such a way. In other words, it makes people less than people. But I think there is a possibility that your interpretation does more justice on the last conversation. I think I wrote better and clearer on the last comment 😦

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