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Published: Tuesday 29th of October 2013
Eric Arthur Blair, more commonly referred to under his alias George Orwell, is one of the most celebrated English writers not only of the 20th century but ever. The Times magazine names him the second greatest English writer after 1945, awarding the first place to Philip Larkin. Orwell is best known for his masterful use of metaphor and allegory revealed in his most well-known novels Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). What makes his writing so insightful and recognizable is that his metaphors are quite subtle, yet anyone with a grain of literacy can unveil them. He has revealed this tendency in his writing long before 1945, so one may say that The Times magazine was not entirely accurate when putting together their list.
While it is true that George Orwell has originally revealed his talent for metaphor and allegory much earlier than Animal Farm (let alone Nineteen Eighty-Four), it is also true that those earlier works were non-fiction. So, there are still quite a few people who do not consider non-fiction to be “real” literature, rather attributing it to journalism or publicism. As a matter of fact, general circles recognizing non-fiction as actual literature is a quite recent trend. And with the rise of this trend, the interest arises to the non-fictional works of the celebrated fiction writers of the past. Among such “newly discovered” pieces is George Orwell’s 1936 essay Shooting an Elephant. It is only a little over 3,000 words long and portrays Eric Blair’s experience as a police officer in Burma.
We would like to give you a quick recap of the essay, along with some comments. But before we proceed to talk about Shooting an Elephant, there are a few things that need mentioning (or reminding). Anyone who has been looking up Orwell’s biography on Wikipedia or elsewhere knows that Eric Arthur Blair was born in British India, but his family moved back to England when he was only one year old. Nevertheless, it appears that he kept his ties with the East, which contributed to his eventual decision to enlist in the British Imperial Police, which he successfully did in the early 1920s. It also appears that the Imperial Police officers were given some degree of choice as to where they would be stationed. Eric Blair chose Burma because he still had family living there – namely, his grandmother lived in Moulmein. His service in Burma, which lasted until he went down with dengue fever in 1927) has provided the necessary experience for writing his Shooting an Elephant essay, which is also set up in Moulmein. Interestingly, even though the essay is written in clearly non-fiction style, it is still widely debated whether the events depicted in this piece indeed took place in real life. Some of Orwell’s biographers, like Bernard Crick – the author of George Orwell: A Life, highly doubts the credibility of Officer Eric Blair actually shooting an elephant. Orwell’s wife Sonia Brownell, on the other hand, was always rigorous about defending her husband’s words truthfulness in her interviews. Either way, whether or not the events of the essay did indeed happen, Shooting an Elephant is still regarded as an exemplary work of the non-fiction genre.
With that out of the way, we can move on to recapping the essay. Orwell begins with recollecting the share of hate that he had to face in those days, also noticing that never before or again in his life had he ever felt so important a person to have so much attention, even if a negative one. The anti-European moods in Burma of that time were quite apparent, even though the locals were not so desperate as to start an actual riot or any form of an open conflict. Nevertheless, this attitude of the locals was evident for every European in Burma to see and experience in a variety of everyday life situations – from bazaar incidents to the course of football games. Orwell recalls being surrounded by “the sneering yellow faces of young men” everywhere he went and hearing echoes of the insults they threw at him every time he was far enough supposedly not to hear them, which, as he claims, had a negative impact on his mental state. Among other locals, he points out that he contented the Buddhist priests worst of all because whereas other people had jobs to do, it seemed like all the priests were ever doing is mocking and sneering at Europeans, as if it were their only job.
This contributed to his strong conviction against imperialism and his reassurance to quit his job as an officer as soon as he could. He says that he understood the anti-imperialist urges of the Burmese and even rooted for them in his mind, but being a British officer and having to endure it all was still unbearable. On the one hand, it pained him to see the British imperialist oppression in Burma in action, but on the other hand, he had a job to do within it. His inner conflict was turning sourer as he admittedly could only put it all into perspective at the time of writing the essay – long after the depicted events (supposedly) took place. He was a young police officer doing his job and had little to no idea of the longer-term logical outcomes of the British imperialism in general. As for the time being, the locals were not so eager to voice their claims and concerns openly, so he, as well as his fellow officers, was to a large extent left to guess and to suffer a then-inexplicable sense of guilt. He claims that he had a lot of work to do, so he did not have much time to spare for reflections; when he did, however, he was torn apart by the sense of injustice that Britain was imposing onto the colonies and the desire “to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” Once again, at the time of writing, Orwell finds it in his power to explain that such inner conflicts were not uncommon among officers, but quite the opposite – a natural reaction to everything one can see from such a position.
When done with the exposition, Orwell finally moves on to the events of the essay. At the beginning of his shift, the young officer received a phone call from a police station sub-inspector from another side of the town. The latter reports about an elephant ravaging the bazaar and inquiring if the young officer would like to go and take a look and maybe do something about it. Orwell realized that there was little he could do about an elephant having only a .44 Winchester rifle except for making noise, but went on to the spot to carry out his job nevertheless; in part, he admitted, because of curiosity. On his way, he questioned the locals who may have had accounted the elephant already. Doing so, he found out that the elephant was tamed and had had a regular attack of “must.” As it is always done in such cases, the elephant had been chained, but somehow had managed to break his chains and run free. The mahout owning the elephant had gone to pursue the animal but had taken in the wrong direction, and had been far off as the elephant attacked the town. The damage was quite severe: a bamboo hut where someone had lived was destroyed, along with a rubbish van, a cow was killed, and some fruit stalls were raided. What made the situation worse is that the locals were usually not allowed to possess any firearms, so they were helpless against such a disaster.
When the officer finally arrived on the spot, he met with the Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables who were doing nothing except waiting for him to come. The part of town turned out to be a poor one – with nothing but shabby huts of bamboo and palm leaf. The weather was not an inspiring one either – it was the beginning of the rainy season, and the morning was cloudy and stuffy. As the officer and his local entourage tried to collect some information about the elephant’s current whereabouts, they got conflicting reports. Orwell points out that it was typical for that locality: whenever you thought you heard a clear and comprehensible story – the more details you wanted to find out, the vaguer would the picture become. The conflicting reports lead Orwell to suspect that the whole story was a hoax of some sort, but a shrill cry of a single woman burst out in an attempt to scare the children away from something they were not supposed to see. Soon, more women joined in, and the children were scared off indeed. What the children were not supposed to see, the officer did see – it was a mangled corpse trampled into the muddy street. It was possible to make out, however, that the elephant’s latest prey had been a lower-caste Indian worker and that he had found his death only some mere minutes before the officer had found his body. The locals claimed that the elephants had attacked the man “suddenly” as if elephants could actually creep on someone. Nevertheless, the eyewitnesses reported that the elephant had taken the deceased with its trunk and trampled him into the mud. Since it was the rainy season already, the grinded corpse looked even more graphic as it “normally” would have. His face had made a foot-deep trench, and he was lying there cross-shaped on his belly with his skinned back for all to see – who would expect an elephant’s foot to be so masterful at skinning? His head was twisted in a way that the officer could see the remains of what had been the face: teeth grinning and eyes wide open in agony – by far not a peaceful look some claim the dead have. Being a police officer, Orwell reacted quickly: he made up his mind on shooting the elephant, sent his part of his entourage to go borrow an appropriate gun for that, and the other part – to take the pony that he had been riding back to the police station, so that it did not go mad at the sight of a raging elephant.
As soon as the officer had the gun, he also managed to procure some information about the elephant’s current whereabouts from the locals. It turned out that the latter was only several hundred yards away, in the paddy fields. This information was now commonly known, so as soon as the officer moved in the direction, everybody in the neighborhood followed him to see an elephant getting shot. It is evident that the residents of that poor neighborhood could not boast having too much excitement in their lives, but apparently, seeing a mighty beast getting put down was much more of an attraction than merely seeing it ravaging their bamboo huts. They may have also been driven by the hope to get some meat off the dead beast. At that point, the officer realized that shooting the elephant was one of the last things he wanted to do and that the rifle was purely for self-defense – not necessarily from the elephant, but he also began to feel a strange sense of duty before the crowd’s expectations. So, with his mind in conflict and not knowing what to do, he marched toward the animal as the cheering crowd grew bigger. The elephant peacefully stood in the paddy fields, just eight yards away from the road, and seemed to have lost all interest in people whatsoever. It was simply eating and cleaning its muddy feet with bunches of wet grass.
As soon as the officer caught this peaceful sight, he also caught himself having second thoughts about shooting the elephant. Not only because it just felt wrong to shoot an animal peacefully chewing on its grass in the field, but also because shooting a working elephant meant severe economic damage, comparing to destroying a valuable piece of factory machinery. In other words, the officer felt strongly about avoiding the worst-case scenario of shooting the elephant by all means. It seemed apparent that the “must” had worn off and the elephant might as well have waited there for the mahout to return and take the animal back to his stead. So, the officer deemed it wise to just watch the elephant for a while to make sure it would cause no more trouble and then leave.
A moment later, the officer looked back at the crowd that he estimated to be no less than two thousand people and growing. It was so big and dense that, at that point, it seemed impossible to walk away either way. It seemed like a carnival with a swarming sea of yellow faces excited at the spectacle that they were sure they would witness. In their minds, shooting an elephant was the same sort of a spectacle as a conjurer performing his tricks: you don’t need to like the conjurer himself, but you are still excited to see the show. At this point, a thought crossed the officer’s mind that he needed to shoot the elephant indeed. Failing to do so would mean fooling the expectations of a two-thousand crowd and disappointing them bitterly, which was not a viable option. This is when the young officer finally began to realize the nature of the European’s dominion over these lands: a puppet of the popular expectations thinking that he was in control just because he had a gun and they did not. Thinking further, Orwell realized that this was not specific to this particular situation – it was typical of any instance when a tyrant wanted to conquer someone else’s freedom forcefully but ending up sacrificing his own freedom for this cause. In his desperate attempts to impress the locals, the sahib became vain and hollow, imprisoned by the locals’ expectations of tricks and “wonders.” It was a mask that every tyrant had to try on until it replaced the face. The face was the commonsense telling not to shoot the elephant, but it was replaced by the mask demanding to follow the crowd’s expectations of pulling the trigger. The mask had taken over the very moment when the officer had taken the elephant-shooting rifle in his hands, thus signaling to the crowd that he would do whatever it is required of a sahib. Failing to do so and walking away would, among other things, provoke immense laughter from the crowd, and avoiding being laughed at was the goal of a lifetime for every European in the East.
It mattered little that the officer did not want to shoot the elephant. It mattered even less how magnificent, enigmatic, and peaceful elephants look when they just stand in the field eating grass. It did not matter how some of us may be fine with killing small animals but not so much so with killing larger ones, considering shooting an elephant a first-degree murder. And it did not matter what the elephant owner would have to say in the end when all would be said and done (like the mere fact that a live elephant costs about a hundred pounds, whereas a dead one – not more than the ivory of its tusks, five pounds at best). What did matter was immediate action. Because of this, the officer asked some locals from the crowd who looked like they could provide some valuable expertise about the elephants’ behavior in general, as if seeking more approval. They did not grant it, unanimously stating that an elephant would only charge him if it spotted him too close; otherwise, it would just keep standing there peacefully.
With this whirlwind of thought settled down, the officer finally made up his mind as to what exactly he must do at this point. That would be walking a little closer to the elephant to see if it would charge him, shooting it if it had, and just leaving it there to wait for the mahout if it hadn’t charged. But – if the elephant did charge the officer after all, then the latter would stand no chance, overestimating neither his shooting skills, nor the weather conditions for running, trying to imagine what would happen if he had shot at the elephant and missed. So, he thought that what he must do would not be what he would do, but he would lie if he said that common sense was his motivation. His commonsense was clouded by the crowd of watchful eyes behind him. He knew that if he were to follow in the footsteps of that Indian worker and be trampled by the elephant, the crowd would just as well cheer and – more importantly – laugh. Once again, allowing himself to be laughed at – even when dead – was not a viable option.
Left without alternatives, the officer loaded the gun and lay down on the road to have a clear aim for shooting. The crowd became even more still than it had been, just like a circus audience about to see the curtain go up and the show begin. Not a single sigh could be heard from the crowd of mouths. They could not possibly miss a single moment of the show that they were now sure to witness. Meanwhile, the officer started to aim a few inches behind the elephant’s ear, assuming that that’s where the animal’s brain would be and not knowing yet that the most efficient way to shoot an elephant is to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole.”
Having pulled the trigger, the officer did not hear the shot itself, as the shooter never does. Instead, the first thing he heard was the roar of admiration that rose from the crowd. Meanwhile, in that very moment, the officer could observe a mysterious and terrifying change in the image of the elephant. Of course, it did not fall down or even shake one bit. It merely put on the old and weary look, as if the shot gave him such a critical amount of stress that it was more than the impact of a bullet and as if this stress has instantly made the animal a thousand years older. A few long seconds past, the mighty animal flubbed to its knees. The officer had to continue the show and shot once more, at the same spot. Contrary to everybody’s expectations, the animals did not collapse but even got back on its feet with its last effort into an upright position. Only the third was the final one, knocking the beast’s massive body down into the mud in agony. But even the elephant’s fall was enigmatically magnificent, just like watching a storm. The elephant trumpeted a single time before landing its massive body on the ground, producing the impact that the officer could feel while still lying on his belly twenty-five yards away as he watched the elephant’s belly.
As the officer got up, the locals already stopped caring about him the least bit and were rushing toward the still breathing animal. Its stomach was still moving in a painful rhythm, and its mouth was desperately gaping for a few last breaths of air so wide that it was almost revealing the animal’s bowels. Hypnotized, the officer just stood there waiting for the elephant’s breathing to stop, in vain. Refusing to wait any longer, the officer shot twice more into where he assumed the animal’s heart must have been. The grass and mud were fountained with red, but the elephant was still breathing. Even in this position, it remained devilishly magnificent and did not shake one bit, moving only in painful breaths, as if saying “You cannot hurt me anymore; I am beyond your power.” Even in this position, the beast exerted its power upon its murderer, making it unbearable for him to watch and listen any longer. The officer took his smaller gun and shot all the bullets he had into the animal’s mouth and heart – with little effect. The animal’s painful gasps persisted.
Finally, the officer left the scene, unable to take another moment of it. Later, people would say that it took over half an hour before the elephant was gone for good. The locals, meanwhile, had their food baskets ready even before the animal’s fate was sealed, and by the afternoon, a massive skeleton would be all that remained of the mighty beast.
As the officer had been suspecting all along, the incident provoked all sorts of discussions. Naturally, the mahout was more than upset about losing a perfectly good working animal, but – as an Indian – he could not have a case against the British Imperial Police. Even if he were not Indian, he was still an owner who had failed to control his animal gone wild, so the animal had to be put down. In the white community, the opinions were different. The older, more conservative and straightforward people said that it was the right thing to shoot the elephant, while the younger, more progressive and practical-minded ones argued that no low-caste worker, let alone fruit tent, deserves the honor of shooting an elephant several times their worth for them. As for the officer, he found it in his heart to be strangely grateful to the late Indian worker who gave him the legal reason to perform the execution, and he was glad that he came out of this whole situation not looking like a fool.