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Critical Analysis of an Essay “Shooting an Elephant”

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“Shooting an Elephant” is an essay by George Orwell written in 1936. Sometimes, it is referred to as a short story. The story unfolds in 1920s in Burma, in a town of Moulmein. Burma of those times is not sovereign; it is a part of India obeying the conqueror only in broad daylight. The author describes petty jeers of the natives who despise “sahibs” in reality. Astonishingly, the author himself being a part of the imperialistic apparatus supports the oppressed Burmese. Orwell describes an accident with an elephant (supposedly autobiographical). The elephant is in the “must” and goes crazy damaging property and killing people. The author murders the elephant supported by numerous natives. The character acts against his common sense and is not willing to kill the elephant. Shooting does not kill the animal right away and the elephant lies suffering in agony and dying for another half an hour.

Emotional bond with the reader is created through the heart-wrenching story of the kill. “Somehow, it always seems worse to kill a large animal” (Orwell). The picture of the dead Dravidian (lower-caste Indian) is even crueler, but this villager is only a collateral damage of taming wild animals and using them as domestic labor. The willful homicide of an unsuspecting animal, on the other hand, is a different thing. “I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have” (Orwell). Ethical conflict of the writer with himself after the shot is more obvious than the conflict with the imperialistic regime. Moral and legal justification of the author is only superficial. He does not feel guiltless at all.

The overall mood of the essay is sullen and stuffy as the air of the village where the action takes place. The main character is weak among the weak. He is the same slave of the British regime, but an outsider for the Burmese. In contrast to these weak, we see the one, who is strong: the elephant. This strong one will be stabbed in the back. In the portrayal of this scene, Orwell foreknows the death of the British Empire illustrating his prophecy with the symbol of the dying elephant. No suspense can be hold up to the end, even though, the main character hesitates. The author has scarcely taken the rifle when we know it will shoot. The story reaches its climax as soon as the soldier has “pulled the trigger.”

Metaphors are numerous all over the essay. The author speaks of himself as “an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind,” “hollow, posing dummy.” Similes are not less figurative than metaphors. The blood of the elephant “welled out of him like red velvet.” The elephant himself “looked no more dangerous than a cow” and “seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree.” Applied techniques make us feel present at the specific period of time. Author controls reader’s compassion and loathing.

Persuasive images of the shot elephant and a man shooting him successfully depict the conflicts that are topical for time and place. The dying elephant struggles for his life (as does the Empire) even though he is doomed to die. The British does not want to shoot, it is against his moral values, but he has to do it because of his spinelessness. The downtrodden Burman makes us see “the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.” The strategies of the author are image-bearing and convincing. The ways of convincing are probably debatable. The World Wildlife Fund would possibly sign a petition against this essay if “Shooting an Elephant” were published this year. However, it will not change the fact that the British Empire perished only in 1997. Apparently, “the elephant” was dying much longer than Orwell had ever expected or foreseen.

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