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Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” Is Still a Classic

Sports Writer and Analyst. Occasionally, I will write about other topics.

George Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant” uses many rhetorical strategies to make the essay come alive.

Orwell adventured into other areas besides the novel. And he was a real critic of his time that was innovative for most authors. In fact, many writers in his time remember him for his non-fiction work. One of Orwell’s most accessible essays “Shooting an Elephant” explains his acrimony toward imperialism by vividly describing an incident in his career as a police officer. The story lends readers to believe that the incident forced them to understand the real nature of Imperialism by killing an elephant. The essay was published three years prior to World War 1. In this unusual narrative he utilizes naturalistic imagery, sagacious diction and an ingenious use of symbolism to crystallize the idea that imperialism is evil.

First, Orwell in the essay uses the fable of an elephant to convey his theme of imperialism. In the passage Orwell represents the Burmese struggles through an elephant chain: (the) “previous night it had broken its chain and escaped.” The chains in the passage represent the totalitarian state in which the Burmese’s people lived. This provides the breeding ground for the “evil.” By using elephant chains instead of describing the political injustice of the time period, Orwell allows for his entire audience to visualize the brutality of imperialism. In the mind of the reader this moves the evil in the passage to the political spectrum. Also this explains how the west is enslaving the East: by forcing them to live by their rules. Next, Orwell uses an elephant to represent how the Burmese people should be acting. In the fable the elephant breaks its chains and runs into its natural environment, and Orwell, the shooter, declares that “he ought not shoot him” for breaking his chains and killing innocent people. By utilizing an example of an animal rebelling against his master, the reader is subconsciously forced to agree that an individual has a right to rebel if treated unjustly. Most readers can identify with this comparison made by Orwell. This gives the reader a just response when confronting imperialism. Next to examine the effects of imperialism on the white man, Orwell uses himself. Despite not wishing to kill the elephant, Orwell bends to the will of Burmese and shoots the elephant. Symbolically, Orwell is implying that the white man has to sacrifice his own morals and humanity as a means of achieving total control over the enslaved. Now, indirectly, the receivers of the “evil” are the individuals who were originally enslaving. Also by using himself as an example he allows the reader to better identify and understand the problem of imperialism. Now, the people who have been enslaving are now the slaves. Thus, imperialism is an evil that affects all. It is a burden for the “white man” as well. This novel contention separates Orwell from many critics in the 1930s.

Aside from the story, Orwell is most innovative in his use of other rhetorical strategies in his writing. Primarily, the most evident rhetorical strategy used in the essay is his use of diction. Mr. Orwell uses diction as a means of describing and imperialism. For example, in the fourth paragraph he alludes that the mysterious figure behind imperialism is a despotic government. The positioning of this word is effective, given the fact that it describes the factors necessary for imperialism: absolute greed. Now imperialism is seen as an evil because it prioritizes economics over humanity by using absolute rule over humans. The way this is conveyed is pleasing to the rhetorician’s eye because it forces the reader to stop and conclude what tendency in man would cause us to imperialize, thus recognizing the evil power behind it. Later in the paragraph he explains the effects of this tyrannical government by examining how an elephant once “tamed” turns “must.” These words indicate to the reader that the government is evil when it resorts to imperialism because it tames humans like they are animals. Many believe that when a government does this to individuals they have a right to rebel against the government. This is best captured by the saying, “An unjust government is no government at all.” This is further conveyed to the audience when he praises the actions of the elephant for acting against an unjust situation. Ultimately, Orwell personally concludes that he “ought not shoot him.” By connecting these terms to the idea of an elephant he allows for an easy transition to the story of an elephant. This in turn makes imperialism an evil because it forces people to turn “must”. By placing the people in virtual chains people are put through unendurable agony. This word expands on the idea of imperialism being “unendurable” to the people that are being conquered. This allows for the reader to better visualize the nature of imperialism: unendurable agony. Thus, for putting people through this pain, imperialism is regarded as an evil.

Orwell relies heavily on imagery as a means of proving to the reader that the Burmese are humans, and the same as people in England. For example, Orwell describes the corpse of a young Burmese just killed by an elephant. The Burmese was “Laying on his belly with arms crucified and his head sharply twisted to one side.” This gives a visual image of the deadly nature of imperialism that any reader can understand. Now, the actors are altered because the white men are not imperializing animals, but humans. This allows the reader to question the ethical side of imperialism indirectly by making the reader question as to whether or not it is “ethical” to “chain” a human. Later in the second paragraph he describes the abrasive treatment of the “prisoners” by depicting Burmese quarters as “wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces….scarred…men who had been flogged with bamboos.” The image of the prisoners receiving beatings is of great significance because it gives the physical results of imperialism, and thus is visible to all readers. Orwell, by describing his work environment reveals the source for declaring imperialism as an evil. This in turn makes imperialism evil because it involves the physical torture of prisoners. Rhetorically it gives a face to the damage of imperialism and allows the reader to question whether or not these beatings are deserved. To expand on the mental reasoning for imperialism being evil, he describes the mentality behind the white man’s place in the east as “with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native people-seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality only an absurd puppet pushed…by the will of those yellow faces behind.” The gravity of the situation changes the notion of who is suffering from this evil. Imperialism is now a new evil because it involves the enslavement of the conqueror also. Thus, because imperialism enslaves all involved, it can only be regarded as an evil.

After reading “Shooting an Elephant” the reader is ethically compelled to realize that imperialism is evil because it forces all involved to be enslaved. This innovative take separates him from other authors. Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” remains a classic.


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