funguy2471975 42M
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2/14/2006 6:07 am

Last Read:
6/12/2006 1:45 am


Images of Imperialism

In “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell uses the act of shooting an elephant as a metaphor for the role of imperialism in oppressing the Burmese people who live under British rule. He further symbolically describes the role of the oppressed and how they influence their own domination by imperialists, and the eventual outcome that will be the destruction of Burma’s own culture. By giving a vivid account of the act, Orwell illustrates the driving forces that give imperialists power over the foreign land they rule, and how the victims of this form of imperialism, in there ignorance, might lead their own culture to destruction and assume there own form of tyranny. The above stated points are discussed with the symbolism of the elephant, the crowd’s reaction to the armed Orwell, and the crowd’s restless need to see the elephant die.
Orwell clearly states, in the beginning of this piece, that he, an Englishman himself, is for the Burmese and against their English oppressors. He also states he feels tensions as a result of the locals’ hatred towards him and other Europeans while serving as a policeman in the Indian Imperial Police. In his introduction, Orwell gives the reader an idea of the social climate, and his personal stance. He clearly describes that the shooting incident was more than just a trivial act of killing a mad animal, but rather an event that gives the reader a better glimpse “of the real nature of imperialism.” Orwell goes on to express that he received a better understanding of tyrannical government’s motives as a result of the inhumane act. Through his telling of the story, Orwell does not stop to tell the reader what each action signifies politically and socially, but rather leaves it up to reader to interpret the meaning step by step as the events unfold. Therefore, the meaning becomes apparent as one reads the story both metaphorically as well as literary.
The immediate inclination Orwell induces in his imagery of the trampling elephant, especially in the beginning of the piece, is that the elephant represents the United Kingdom or the Imperialist British. If Orwell had begun his story by simply delving into the actions that led up to the shooting of the elephant one would not deduce this. But by expressing the fact that the experience had enlightened him to “the real motives for which despotic governments act” one cannot help but to see what Orwell is trying to present when first introduced to the acts of the huge animal.
The trampling elephant, with its “mahout” or trainer being a long journey away, went out of control destroying a hut, killing a cow and “[raiding] some fruit stalls devouring the stock”(Orwell 127). The elephant, being a powerful creature unheeding to any obstacles that stands its path, cannot help to remind one of tyrannical governments. The images of the trampling elephant, the elephant eating grass, the elephant being shot, all imply a strong similarity when compared to the acts of the Imperialist British government. With their “mahout” or leaders far away on the other side of the world, the British have done the same thing to Burma and its people as the elephant is doing in the story. They have used Burma’s cattle, exported the spices or fruit, devoured their stock, and trampled any “coolie” or enslaved laborer who gets in their way.
Orwell implies, in the beginning of the story, that the elephant standing alone is a metaphor for British rule. But as he later begins his pursuit of the mad animal with his gun in hand, Orwell creates a new symbolism and a new reality. He uses himself, the elephant, and the will of the people pushing him to kill the animal as a metaphor to define the terrible effects of oppression. Although the crowd is full of hatred for the Imperialist oppression they become enamored with the Englishman and his weapon, and excitedly wait for him to pull the trigger.
The actions and reactions of the crowd forming, waiting for the foreigner to pull the trigger becomes a sociological statement about the politics in Burma. Orwell goes on to describe the acts of the crowd behind him, “I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly… but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces”(Orwell 129). Once the gun is pulled out Orwell knows that he must kill the elephant. After all, the people behind him wanted the meat. Here Orwell metaphorically describes how the natives assume their oppression. As a result of being exposed to the systems of imperialism with or without the British the Burmese will internalize their own system of tyranny that will further oppress them. They will eventually ravage their own land ‒ symbolized by the elephant ‒ and they will strip its “body almost to the bones by the afternoon.”
Orwell slowly shifts the symbolic meaning of the elephant and himself from the sociological nature of imperialism to the destruction of an ancient way. Orwell shows the dehumanizing nature of Imperialism with his strikingly powerful description of the powerful animal’s death. He creates great sympathy for the animal by representing it in a most peaceful nature, and by making the reader recall the most peaceful images ever seen of an elephant. “I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have”(Orwell 129). Once, the reader has begun to feel sympathy for the elephant Orwell introduces the dehumanizing element of the rifle, a tool of civilized man created to kill. In firing the first shot at the old, strong elephant, Orwell actually describes the collapse of Burma’s ancient culture. He clearly gives his readers a picture of an elephant that has existed for many years in order to imply an understanding that this is not just an elephant falling to its knees, but also a whole culture falling to oppression.
It is said that a picture speaks a thousand words, and through the use of metaphors, Orwell paints numerous pictures in his political commentary. Perhaps “Shooting an Elephant,” with its vivid imagery, and simple, to the point images, speaks most loudly to its audience. The messages of tyranny, oppression, and the influential nature of imperialism that one man sees from behind the uniform and through an elephant are evident throughout the story. Maybe one day, more people will see George Orwell’s entire photo album.

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