In the early twentieth century, Burma was still a colony of Britain but anti-imperialism protests and social movements developed very fast, causing “great tension between Burmese, Indians and English, between civilians and police” (Meyers 56). Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” is based on this historical tension. In this essay, Orwell depicts an older narrator recounting his imperial policeman’s experience of killing an escaped elephant that destroyed a market and killed an Indian man in Burma.
Throughout the story, Orwell chooses language carefully to develop his narration so as to help the readers explore a young imperial officer’s emotional struggle. First, Orwell begins his story with frequent use of carefully-chosen diction to indicate the young policeman’s hatred and also sympathy toward the Burmese. When he describes he was always “an obvious target” to those Burmese who hated the British Empire, he writes: When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, then the crowd yelled with hideous laughter.
This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. (Orwell 94) Using the strong emotional words “hideous,” “sneering yellow faces,” and “hooted” indicates the young officer’s disgust toward those Burmese. But in the following paragraph his emotions are suddenly described in a more complex way; the narrator says, “All this was perplexing and upsetting” (Orwell 94), which is opposite to the anger and bitterness that are suggested by the diction used before.
By using these two words, Orwell changes the young policeman’s emotional voice to the older narrator’s more intellectual voice to suggests a more complex feeling about what the young imperial policeman experienced because of his job. In the next sentence, Orwell uses a series of strong phrases to describe what the young police officer observes in his “dirty work”: “The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos—all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt” (Orwell 91).
From this specific and graphic description of the prison, readers can perceive the young officer’s sympathy and guilt toward the suffering Burmese. It makes them realize that the young imperial officer is not totally inhumane. In short, Orwell uses careful diction to create the first emotional struggle of the young officer within his policing duties under imperialism. In the essay, Orwell also uses repetition to show the young narrator’s complex emotions.
For example, after the young officer sees the destruction caused by the elephant and finally finds his target on the paddy field, he mentions more than three times that he is not willing to shoot the elephant. When he sees the crowd following him, he reports, “I had no intention of shooting the elephant—I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary”(Orwell 94). After he sees the elephant, he comments, “I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him” (Orwell 94). Then, he starts saying that the elephant was “a huge and costly piece of machinery” (Orwell 95) and the elephant seemed harmless right now.
The young officer continues claiming,“I did not in the least want to shoot him” (Orwell 95). These all shows the young man’s sympathy toward the elephant, but more importantly Orwell builds up a tension here by using three different versions of repetition to show how the young officer was wavering in his position. For the first quote, “no intention” somehow indicates the young narrator’s thinking: he seems to be saying, “I have no purpose to do that and I am not going to do it. ” But then in the second quote, he says “ought not to” instead of “no intension of,” which contains much more certainty of not killing the elephant.
It shows that the young officer knew he should not shoot the elephant, but he certainly felt a lot of pressure and his mind was not as firm as in the last statement. In the third statement, the young officer’s tone is obviously weaker than the last two; “I did not in the least want…” this tone sounds just like a prisoner talking about how he does not want to commit a murder, finishes it saying “I didn’t want to kill that person. ” The young officer’s mind was wavering and he was taking a step forward toward killing the elephant everytime he introduces his different expressions of unwilling to kill the elephant.
Orwell uses this repetition not only to show the young officer’s internal conflict, but also to imply, as a possible result, that the young officer will change his mind from not shooting the elephant to actually doing that. However, under the crowd’s pressure and his position as an imperial officer, the young police officer has to kill the elephant in order to maintain his master figure. Orwell uses the change from the first person to the third person to comment on the young man’s revelation. When the young man sees that the Burmese watch him excitedly, he suddenly feels that he should shoot the elephant after all.
And it is because “their two thousand wills [were] pressing me forward, irresistibly…[that] 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” (Orwell 95). The narration shifts from the first person “I” to the third person “he,” indicating not only Orwell’s comment upon this decision of the young person, but also Orwell’s main argument in the essay: as a imperial officer, a person needs to betray his own good nature in order to maintain his superiority toward the colonized.
Then, Orwell uses strong terms again to replay the emergency and tension that the young officer encountered earlier: A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives’; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like the Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do. (Orwell 96)
Here, words like “sole thought,” “trampled,” “reduced to a grinning corpse” are used to emphasize the young man’s anxiety in shooting the elephant, for he does not want to lose face in front of the natives. This is the remaining emotion occupying his mind at that time; even though he still has sympathy toward the elephant, as a imperial officer, he will kill the elephant to protect his “conventionalized figure of a sahib. ” By way of these specific word choices, Orwell describes vividly how the young imperial officer’s pride finally defeats his good nature so that he can maintain his superior figure.
Finally, Orwell ends the story using the young officer’s naive voice as opposed to the older narrator’s voice mentioned before to make his narration more believable: “I was very glad that the coolie [which is the Indian killed by the elephant] had been killed…it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant” (Orwell 99). Readers may feel sympathetic that the young man does not feel guilty but happy that he is not responsible for killing the elephant and saving his face or “avoiding looking a fool” in front of the natives.
They may feel pity that the young man is likely to learn nothing from this incident and even to feel lucky that someone’s death can free him of responsibility for killing the elephant. But this naive voice can increase the old narrator’s credibility because readers can feel his sincerity; he is willing to admit that his younger self really felt a bit lucky that he was out of punishment because of the elephant killing an Indian man at that time.
It convinces the reader to believe what the narrator argues at last: as an imperial officer, he has to do what the natives expect of him in order to conform to his “conventionalized figure of the sahib”(Orwell 95), which is “to avoid looking a fool”(Orwell 99) in front of the natives. Overall, in this essay, Orwell uses effective language to make his narration of the story more impressive and thoughtful, and to explore an imperial officer’s struggle between his good nature and his imperial role.