Wibbly, Wobbly, Timey, Wimey Paradoxes: Rhetoric and Contradiction in “Shooting an Elephant”

Though at times confusing, using a contradiction strongly establishes and emphasizes a point and often inspires an emotional response. In George Orwell’s essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell effectively delivers these contradictions, or paradoxes, in a manner that defines human nature in political situations and illustrates the issues with such responses. These rhetorical devices add depth to Orwell’s argument that better persuade the reader to consider his position on human nature in political situations.

To claim that “…when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys,” Orwell implies that, in the context of the time period of British Imperialism, any leader that runs rampant in their country is destined to sacrifice their own freedom in addition to pulverizing the freedom of the others’ they are desperate to control. In the essay, Orwell describes himself as being “…stuck between [his] hatred of the empire [he] served and [his] rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make [his] job impossible.” His job as an Indian Imperial police officer makes him loyal to Imperialist Britain, yet, he wants to help the oppressed Indians, regardless of how poorly they treat him. This is an example of how the white man destroys his own freedom when attempting to viciously control or expand into other countries, as Great Britain was doing in this era.

Orwell later argues with himself about shooting the elephant before realizing that he must with the crowd watching him. This is his loss of freedom based on his loyalty to the British Empire that had run tyrant. It is human nature, in political situations, to either consciously or subconsciously sacrifice something personal for the sake of the whole. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also proves this instinct in his description of the few white American, saying in “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.” This hesitation and resistance that King faced was a result of the oppressive government that, when loyal to that government, the freedom of that person is obliterated for the sake of suppressing another’s because their choices had to follow the strict guidelines they’d been given. Because of this, the paradox Orwell uses to emphasize how people react in the face of hardened, harsh government officials shoving rules and restrictions down their throats is effective, in that it shows how it’s human nature to follow orders and avoid being singled out for daring to speak out.

Orwell presses the issue of human instinct in times of racial and social segregation by saying that the white man “…wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it,” addressing the reality that, when oppressive governments or leaders, in general, press for something with enough force, the citizens under their rule will adhere to their wishes and at least pretend to stick to the status quo. The citizens adopt a persona, a “mask” that does not reflect their true feelings and thoughts for the sake of conformity. Ultimately, however, fantasy vanishes and what’s left is only reality. The citizens’ faces “grow to fit the mask,” and they, in turn, become their personas. The racist and controversial ideas people adapt, most commonly do to fear of their leaders, eventually solidify from facade to actuality which they then pass on to younger generations, of whom know nothing different as a result. This is true in Orwell’s account of shooting an elephant where he, again, describes himself as “…stuck between [his] hatred of the empire [he] served and [his] rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make [his] job impossible,” illustrating that, because he was forced to “wear a mask” in order to appease his leaders and aid in the suppression of the British-controlled India at the time, he came to despise the Indians as well, adhering to the stereotype. This is human nature: to go with the flow and keep quiet when having a differing opinion is the option many choose when faced with difficult political situations. Because the dictators and fascist governments of a given time created freakishly effective propaganda, many citizens feared reprimanding for posing an opposing argument to their leaders and adopted racial, social, sexuality, and religious discriminating perspectives to avoid being on the other side of the barrel of the gun. These “masks” they wore came to be truth, eventually, and they passed those ideas down to their children. This paradox Orwell makes is sound and true, proved in the accounts of World War II, because it adequately emphasizes how humans react to oppressive, power-greedy governments and leaders with how quickly they answer to fear and “…grow to fit [the mask].”

Orwell takes such simple phrases that initially seem merely contradictory and confusing, and he uses them to his advantage to inspire questions and emotions. These questions and emotions fall back to his concept of human nature in the face of political situations, and he effectively presents them in such a short and sweet way with the paradoxes that without them, the essay loses its effect to call attention to the issues with things such as imperialism. Because Orwell successfully creates these paradoxes that are not difficult to comprehend and can be supported with evidence in other essays such as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and events in history, they add an element to the essay that strongly supports the argument. Though at times confusing, the complexity of paradoxes often changes an entire piece in a way that’s unattainable through anything else.

George Orwell: Modernism and Imperialism in “Shooting an Elephant”

“Shooting an Elephant,” a short story by George Orwell, is about a man who goes against his morals and succumbs to social pressures at the expense of an innocent elephant. The story, published in 1936, was influenced by the formal innovations and social thought of the Modernist Period. During this time, widespread British Imperialism had a great effect on society; Orwell’s life experiences and the current events of the time also greatly influenced his work. Orwell presents the Modernist themes of Imperialism, racial feuds and isolation using direct, matter-of-fact sentences and a truthful, conversational tone. Throughout, Orwell’s use of an honest first person stream of consciousness based on his experiences in India displays the racial tensions caused by Imperialism during the Modernist Period.

Born in 1903, Orwell lived towards the end of British Imperialism, a time of great conflict. The atrocities the British inflicted on their subjects, especially in India, greatly affected him. Great Britain colonized India and held control of it for over two centuries. The British exploited the country for its abundance of goods such as spices and gold, and used it to expand their trading routes and sphere of influence. Imperialism benefited the British, but not the Indians. When Britain gained control of India, the Indians faced persecution in their own country and forced assimilation into European culture. After spending time working as a police officer in a rundown village in Burma, India, Orwell became aware of these injustices. He was, “Keenly aware of the inequalities of Imperialism” (Hopkinson 2) and openly expressed his disdain for the practice. He details the horrors experienced by the Indian subjects in his stories. In his writing, Orwell reflects his first-hand experience of the evils of Imperialism and his great hatred of the British government.

The setting in Burma greatly impacted the story. Similar to the protagonist in the story, Orwell acted as the assistant district superintendent of the Imperial Police in Burma. During this time the author witnessed much discrimination and injustice towards the Indians. Only a select group of European men ruled millions of Indians through force, creating an imbalance of power. Orwell channeled his animosity into his writing by, “Immersing himself in difficult situations and then writing about them with extraordinary insight” (Hopkinson 1). By doing so, he helps the reader better understand the injustices of Imperialism. Orwell’s criticism of Imperialism and deep understanding of the plight of the Indians add thoughtful insight to the story.

The plot of “Shooting an Elephant” and the protagonist’s thoughts portray how racial tensions and societal expectations can alter a man’s values. The plot of the story demonstrates the racial tensions between the British Imperialists and the villagers of Burma. The European men control the villagers, which makes the unnamed protagonist feel like he must act powerful. He feels that, “He has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him” (Orwell 6) and be the powerful and brave leader they want him to be. For this reason, he takes action when a group of frenzied villagers tell him that a wild elephant is causing havoc in their village. At first, the protagonist has no intention of killing the elephant. He demonstrates this by only taking a small handgun for protection. This quickly changes. As he approaches the village, he sees a trampled corpse of a man and thousands of villagers. As the protagonist pursues the elephant, the large crowd follows, watching his every move. Although he did not originally plan on killing the elephant, he feels pressure from the villagers and shoots. The elephant does not die immediately, it takes many bullets and over half an hour for the elephant to slowly parish. The villagers watch in as awe as if the killing was their entertainment, and after the elephant dies, they scavenge for its meat.

Within the narration, there is much debate on whether or not the killing of the elephant is ethical. The protagonist internally struggles with having killed the elephant and is overwhelmed by guilt. In the end, the protagonist is relieved that the elephant killed a man, because it gave him the legal right to kill the elephant. But the protagonist did not kill the elephant to protect the village or because it was the right thing to do. He states that “Legally I had done the right thing,” (Orwell 9) but morally he did not. He killed the elephant to sustain his image as a strong leader and protect his ego.

By using first-person narration, Orwell displays the protagonist’s internal struggle regarding shooting the elephant. The protagonist narrates the story using a stream of consciousness to provide blunt, truthful accounts. He uses a didactic manner to educate the reader and describe the horrors of British Imperialism. He portrays Orwell’s hatred of British Imperialism and sympathy for the Burmese with an “Honest use of language” (Kinsella 1). By using first person narration, Orwell provides the reader with a glimpse into the protagonist’s inner thoughts and reveals “Extraordinary insight” (Kinsella 1). It also depicts the character development of the protagonist from a morally upstanding police officer to a weak-willed elephant murderer. The story includes the narrator’s inner thoughts to show his moral development and criticisms of the cruel Imperialistic system.

The three Modernist themes illustrated in “Shooting an Elephant” are Imperialism, racial feuds, and isolation. Portrayed negatively, Imperialism greatly influences the story. Orwell negatively describes Imperialism and reveals its immorality. The story displays the loss of freedom and injustices the villagers endure. The second theme, racial feuds, is shown through the tensions between the protagonist and the villagers. Because of the British Imperialism of Burma, India, a small group of Europeans are given power over the millions of Indians of the country. This great imbalance of power causes the villagers to resent the protagonist and the other Europeans in their country. The villagers had a bitter, “Anti-European feeling” (Orwell 1) toward the protagonist which affected their relationship. The third theme presented in the story is isolation. Because he is the only European in the village and one of the few white men in all of India, the narrator is ostracized. The British have rule over the Indians and domain over their country, so the narrator separates himself as the man in power. This causes him to feel like he must rise to meet the India’s great expectations of the white Europeans in power. British Imperialism of India causes racial feuds and isolation of the protagonist, which are three of the prominent themes of the story.

“Shooting an Elephant” illustrates the social tensions created by British Imperialism. Orwell draws off of his experiences as a police officer in Burma to develop the protagonist, which created a more insightful and realistic character. Using first person narration, Orwell clearly describes the narrator’s thoughts and emotions. Therefore, he is able to display the protagonist’s character development through the story. He transforms from an upstanding police officer to a weak-willed man that disregards his morals and better judgement to conform to the expectations of others. In addition, Orwell critiques British Imperialism in India and expresses his disdain for the treatment of the Burmese. He exposes their exploitation and the racist actions taken against them. Overall, George Orwell uses first person narration to portray the thoughts and emotions of the protagonist and draws on his own experiences with British Imperialism to create a short story highlighting the racial tensions in Burma, India. A man is no match for an elephant, unless he has a gun. The British troops would be no match for the millions of Indians, except they have guns. The slow death of the elephant reminds the reader of the long, cruel period of British Imperialism in India, which killed the free will of the Indians. Orwell uses the seemingly simple situation of a man shooting an elephant to bring to light the pain and consequences of Imperialism.