What is Orwell saying about colonialism in “On Shooting an Elephant”?

Here is the answer and explanation to the question What is Orwell saying about colonialism in “On Shooting an Elephant”?

What is Orwell saying about colonialism in “On Shooting an Elephant”?

The narrator is placed in a position that simultaneously makes no sense, and yet has no other viable options. His reaction to the situation is one of desperation and futility, which reflects well on the absurdity of colonialism as a whole.

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The situation in which the narrator, presumably Orwell, finds himself in “On Shooting an Elephant” is unique in that there is no correct choice facing him. This is not because both choices have their pros and cons, but because both seem equally terrible and unappealing. When taking aim at the elephant, the narrator is in a situation that is simultaneously horrifying and humiliating, tragic and farcical, to name only a few of the strange, existential paradoxes that face him in that decisive moment. The statement that is being made about colonialism is one of overwhelming futility.

The European presence in the Far East is, from the point of view of the narrator, absolutely useless. It is a vanity project by elites that have no knowledge or care of the cultures that they consistently dominate. The colonial presence is a bumbling and clumsy titan of industry and military might, making a mess wherever it sets foot. Even people like the narrator who are sympathetic to the Burmese natives cannot be taken seriously or seen as people due to the uniform that they wear. The choice to brutally slaughter an animal that will inflict no further harm simply to maintain an air of authority that the shooter already believes to be a farce is an absolutely ridiculous choice—one that could only be made in the ridiculous circumstances of colonialism. The British rule does not belong; it is only absolute because it forced itself in.

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“Shooting an Elephant” shows the corrupting effects that colonialism can have on people, even those who are part of the system. The narrator of the story is profoundly uneasy at having to carry out his duty as a colonial police officer in Burma. He doesn’t want to shoot the rampaging elephant; he knows that it’s a valuable commodity in the colonial economy—but he also knows that the natives are watching, and any sign of weakness or lack of resolve on his part will undermine the authority of both himself and his superiors.

This is what colonialism does to people, Orwell is arguing. The colonial policeman has been corrupted in that he’s forced to do something he doesn’t really want to do and which he knows just isn’t right. The Burmese, for their part, as well as being exploited and kept in a state of subjection by their colonial overlords, have also been corrupted. Although they resent the representative of colonial law and order in their midst, they nonetheless expect him to assert his authority in the face of a wild animal on the loose. In their own way, they are as conflicted in their emotions as the colonial policeman, and once again, it’s the colonialist system that’s largely responsible for this mentality.

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In this essay, Orwell is arguing that colonialism is a systemic evil. What he attempts to illustrate, through the story the narrator tells, is that the individual people living in Burma, whether natives or colonizers, are not inherently evil. However, they are all caught up in a system that causes them, against their better impulses, to behave in stupid and evil ways.

The narrator, for example, is inherently a sensible and moral person who knows he is caught up in a situation he would like to escape. He realizes the system of governance on Burma is corrupting him: for instance, he doesn’t want to hate the Burmese but he does. He is so fed up that he fantasizes about killing them. Likewise, he doesn’t want to kill the no-longer rampaging elephant. He knows it is both a wasteful and a cruel act. He knows he is inflicting suffering on the animal, which takes a long time to die. He knows he is only doing it to uphold the illusion that the British are all powerful.

The narrator knows he carries out the killing simply to prop up an unsustainable system of colonialism, one that corrupts its participants by putting appearance ahead of reality and valuing the display of power more than humanitarianism.

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Editors can answer only one question at a time; so try to use your answer to this question for your comparison between “Elephant” and Things Fall Apart.

In “On Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell demonstrates his internal conflict with the ideals of Colonialism. Orwell shoots the elephant which is a symbol of the British Empire or Imperialism in general; however, he does so with reservation, in part to save the Burmese people who are in danger of being trampled by the animal. Orwell’s struggle arises from the knowledge that he is in Burma to “serve” the British Empire, and yet, he has realized that the Empire is “trampling” on the Burmese just as the literal elephant does. Orwell views this as a possible prediction of what might happen to Britain if it continues to oppress the native people of its empire.

As a whole, Orwell portrays Colonialism as an unsustainable ideology which imposes its standards and culture upon native peoples. He warns through his essay that the ruling country will either one day self destruct or be destroyed by those whom it has oppressed.

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