British Modernism in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”

Orwell was born in 1903 in Bengal, India and died on January 21, 1950 in London, England (Orwell 1). His father served as a British civil servant in India and sent Orwell to a private school in England where he won a scholarship to Eton, the foremost “public school” in the country. Orwell noticed the difference between his own background and the wealthy background of many of his schoolmates while attending Eton. After leaving school Orwell joined the Imperial Police in Burma. While in service from 1922-1927, he gains a sense of guilt about the British colonies and feels he must have a kind of personal explanation for it. Orwell’s birth name was actually Eric Blair, but upon arriving in England after his service in Burma he changed it to George Orwell as a way to escape his social class position. He soon after moved to Paris, France and begins his first attempts at writing. One of Orwell’s earliest works was an essay about his experiences in Burma as an Imperial Policeman. Orwell’s essay titled “Shooting an Elephant” was written in 1936. In “Shooting an Elephant” Orwell uses British Modernistic ideals such as multiple points of view, multiple moral positions, and a fragmented view human subjectivity and history to create a moving piece of work.

According to Davidar Orwell’s “Shooting an Elphant” is perhaps the “finest” on colonial experiences in Burma (Davar 1). The essay revolves around an enraged elephant that is causing havoc around the town along with Orwell’s struggle with the town’s people and what to do about the elephant. Orwell writes of the natives being consistently rude and hateful of the Europeans there. Orwell finds himself following the course of the rampaging elephant. The elephant kills one of the natives, and Orwell decides to arm himself with an elephant rifle. Orwell initially has no intentions of killing the beast but as a massive crowd of natives follows him he grows uneasy. Orwell believes now he must kill the elephant in order to exemplify the power of Britain else look like a fool in front of the natives. He kills the elephant and the natives make short work of the remains.

British Modernism was a period in which British culture was confident and at the forefront of cultural development. It was also a time of great contradictions. There was great wealth, but also great poverty. Great new industrial advances were being made, but the working conditions remained brutal. Everyday was rapidly changing due to new technologies and socioeconomic changes. It was a time of increasing uncertainties of the present day. World War I put things into perception by shocking all of Europe with the horrors of war. British Modernism sparked the changing of times from traditional ways to new unknown ones. British Modernism was a time of tremendous experimentation and contradiction of Victorian values.

In Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” Orwell uses modernism such as multiple points of view, multiple moral positions, and a fragmented view human subjectivity and history to create a moving piece of work. Orwell writes his essay in a way that gives you the chance to experience his life in not only through his eyes, but also through the eyes of the natives. According to Orwell “No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress” (Norton 2457). Thus Orwell gives us the impression that the natives have a deep hatred of their European rulers. He then goes on and gives many examples of life as a native and how the British Raj treats them. He explains that the Burmese are the victim of Imperialism. Orwell writes, “The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the 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” (Norton 2457). From the later quotation one can make the assumption that life, as a native was anything but glamorous. He also makes the point that he himself did not like being there. Orwell states, ”[…] the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better” (Norton 2457). Later in the story Orwell tells of his struggle with what to do about the elephant. Orwell finds himself in a dilemma whether to kill the elephant or to let it live. Although Orwell is in a dilemma the view of the Burmese remains consistent. Orwell said of the Burmese crowd,” They were going to have their bit of fun after all” (Norton 2460). Obviously the natives wanted to see the animal killed for a little excitement and also so they could stuff their baskets with fresh meat. On the other hand, the owner’s point of view is one of outrage. The owner loses a great working elephant worth a great deal such as a piece of machinery. Orwell writes, “The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing” (Norton 2461). The different points of view such of Orwell, the Burmese, and the owner of the elephant are a common characteristic of British Modernistic writing.

Orwell uses multiple moral positions in his essay “Shooting an Elephant” to impact the reader with contradiction and doubt. Orwell makes his moral position on Imperialism well known with strong statements against the British. Although Orwell was an Imperial Police Officer he did not agree with what was going on. Orwell states, “Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” (Norton 2457). Orwell did not necessarily like the natives, but he didn’t blame them for the way they acted towards him. He struggled with the natives and the Imperialist that he served. Orwell said, “All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I severed and my rage against the evil spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible” (Norton 2457). Morally he knew that what the British were doing in Burma was not right, additionally he knew that his improper feelings for wanting to kill the evil spirited natives was brought about by the Imperialism that he served. Orwell once said,” Doublethink, means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them (Cyber Nation). A great deal of Moral contradiction revolves around the killing of the elephant. Orwell finds himself doubting whether he has done the right thing. He speaks of a split between the older men agreeing with him and the younger not. Orwell himself uses the elephant killing the native as a sort of justification for his actions. Orwell and the older men believe that legally his has done the right thing, but the younger men disagree. Orwell explains, “The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a dame shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie” (Norton 2462). There is great uncertainty of the situation and Orwell states,” I often wonder whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” (Norton 2462). The complex and contradictory moral positions held by the individuals in the essay express British Modernism.

Perhaps the most appealing and contradictory bit of British Modernism that is found in “Shooting an Elephant” is the fragmented view of human subjectivity and history. As I have stated earlier Orwell has ill feelings towards the activities of Imperialism. Hitchens writes of Orwell,” His rooted opposition to imperialism is a strong and consistent theme throughout all his writings” (Hitchens 1). Orwell uses great descriptions of the way the Burmese are treated and oppressed by the British. The Burmese are subjects to the rule of the British. They are ruled over as if they re cattle in a farm pasture. The British have been doing this for years and the new times brought about by Modernism are changing the old ways. Orwell says that he does that know that “the British Empire is dieing” but that still less did he know that it would be better than the younger empires that would replace it (Norton 2457). The history of ruler and subjects was fading away whether for worst of for better. The days of Imperialism were slowly but slowly giving way to new ideas and values brought about by British Modernism.

Orwell in one of his first and perhaps simplest works “Shooting an Elephant” expressed a great deal of British Modernism. The multiple viewpoints brought about the Imperialism and the killing of the elephant are prime examples of the new creative styles brought about my British Modernism. The moral positions held by the different individuals in the essay are especially important because they go against traditional believes about British Imperialism. Last but not least is the fragmented view of human subjectivity and history that supports the changing times from the Victorian Era into the Modern. British Modernism in Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” make it an instant classic and a must read for any student of literature.
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