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A Question Of Social Status In Shooting an Elephant Novel

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The Social Similarities in George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”

In George Orwell’s To Shoot an Elephant, the protagonist struggles with the decision of letting an elephant live or shooting and eventually killing it. Through the power of gossip, Orwell discovers that an elephant has clearly gone haywire, and he must make the decision of killing it or letting it live. The elephant’s body can represent many things and relate back to the author’s body and position in society as a tool for the people and a metaphorical outsider in the present culture. Although two different characters in the text, Orwell and the elephant are in the same position in society, and one could easily make a connection between the two, and their social standings. These two characters in the essay share the social status of an outsider in society, who both gain dominance only when presenting an immediate threat. It is evident that Orwell’s position is society is that of an outsider, and that he and the elephant share this position. In a foreign county, where the population not only thinks differently, but speaks differently too, Orwell stood out due to his imperial ties and lack of cultural connections and communication just like the elephant.

The Burmese people around Orwell, who are radically different in terms of cultural identity and language, do not respect his authority, nor do they understand his way of thinking. This view causes Orwell’s authority to be viewed as unofficial and ostracized when handling political matters, and can be seen when the author writes:

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They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching… Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd–seemingly the leading actor of the piece. (Orwell 1)

The protagonist and the elephant in the text share many qualities, but none more than their position in society. Alone, Orwell is powerless and disrespected, but with a rifle, he gains the power and respect of the masses around him. In the quotation Orwell brings up the fact that is a white man. This classification allows for him to ostracize himself from the group and further himself culturally from the colored people around him. Furthermore, Orwell manages to distance himself to the point where he seems foreign, just as the elephant does is in shape, and color. Orwell goes on to say that he had a magical rifle, which is a phrase used to exaggerate the power of the gun and the weakness of the village. Orwell, along with his rifle are a tool to society, bringing fear due to the rifle’s power, but giving the village a service in exchange for their respect. Just like Orwell, the elephant, who is a tool to society, can be used for good and is viewed as an inferior being. This distinction is completely broken when the elephant goes haywire, and the people in the village treat it with respect and space instead of using it as a tool. Elephants, who are monstrously huge, are a common sight in Myanmar, where the text takes place, and are usually used as tools to humanity and a means of transportation. Just like Orwell, the elephant is an outsider to humanity, trying to live, and doing what it can to stay alive and satisfy the people around it.

When the author describes his experience while contemplating whether or not to shoot the elephant, he states that he was a puppet to the people, just trying to stay alive and gain respect. Orwell begins by stating “but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind”(Orwell 1). This is important to note because just like Orwell himself, the elephant is a puppet to society. Elephants were used as a way to transport goods, people, and information, as well as laborers to push carts, and entertain those around them. Orwell was a man of labor and entertainment as well, when taking into consideration his ties to imperialism and the lack of respect he has in the village. As an occupation, Orwell stood guard and policed the village around him. This job, that usually entitles power, denoted Orwell to a metaphorical swine in the village due to his outsider status as a white man, and political ties to the imperial power as an officer. When confronting the reality that he is a puppet to society, Orwell states that he was surrounded by “yellow faces”. The phrasing Orwell uses here could demonstrate that the people around him where scared and pale, but he is most likely acknowledging his physical differences with the people of Myanmar, who were yellow-skinned, in opposition to his white color. Just like the elephant, Orwell physically stands out from the masses as an alternate shape and color, and his physical distinctions further his ties to the society around him.

With all his physical distinctions demoting his social status, Orwell promotes himself when handling a deadly weapon, which could hold the key to his status. Orwell uses his rifle to hunt and finally kill the elephant that ravishes the town, and temporarily gains the attention and respect of his audience; the people in the village. By carrying a weapon at all, Orwell asserts dominance over the unarmed people that surround him and even the elephant. Orwell’s rise in power can be demonstrated when author Ryan Francis Murphy states:

Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant” is critical of the transformative potential of absolute power… Specifically, he finds himself unable to exercise his individual agency in a difficult situation; despite the fact that he does “not want to shoot the elephant,” Orwell’s self-modeled narrator must fulfill his role… Unlike Conrad, however, Orwell also depicts the suffering of the elephant. (2)

Here, Murphy states that Orwell did not kill the elephant for sport but rather to defend himself and the people of the village. Furthermore, Murphy states that Orwell kills the elephant to assert his dominance as a man and as an imperial power. After initially shooting the elephant, Orwell discovers that it is suffering greatly and that it might not die if not shot again. The elephant’s prompts Orwell to continuously shoot at its head repeatedly in order to end its misery. This can symbolize many things but none more than Orwell struggling for power against the village. The elephant’s suffering can represent Orwell’s last reign of leadership, as he will eventually lose power. After shooting the elephant, Orwell will not be needed and will be useless to the people of the village once more. Inevitably he will lose power and dominance over the masses and fall back into his place in society, where he will be disrespected and dethroned, just like the elephant he killed. Orwell, although on the elephant’s side, decides to follow the village’s pressured suggestions, and decides to kill the elephant in order to gain momentary respect. Orwell had no intentions to kill the elephant, but he wanted to make the villages see that he was one of them. Just like the elephant, Orwell was simply a tool to society, who was morphed and manipulated into doing exactly that they wanted, even going as far as killing an animal against his own morals. Furthermore, Orwell’s temporary high social status ends the moment the elephant’s does; once it dies. The death of the elephant was the death of Orwell’s social increase, as well as the elephants fall in social power too.

Orwell’s inability to become one with the villagers prompts him to go outside his moral comfort zone and actually shoot and kill the elephant, initially killing his social status with it. Jan Whitt demonstrates that by that killing the elephant, Orwell becomes one with society momentarily and then gets demoted once again when she states “the protagonist of the autobiographical story realizes he will have to kill the grazing elephant because the crowd expects him to do so and because he unwittingly has become a symbol for his race” (Whitt 5). In her writings, Whitt discusses that as a white man from the west in Burma, Orwell needs to demonstrate his dominance and prove that he must be respected. Orwell cannot accomplish this without being immersed in the society surrounding him, so he goes through what can be thought of as a rite of passage. The shooting and killing of the elephant can be seen as Orwell’s initiation into the Burmese Society. The elephant’s death, which was dreaded by Orwell, was something that a western imperialist does not want to do. Being from the west, Orwell has certain standards and morals that make it difficult to kill large animal, which come to him before he eventually breaks them by indeed killing the elephant. Orwell chooses to break his morals to momentarily become the most powerful man in the village. By possessing weapons unlike no other and demonstrating bravery like no one else, shooting and killing the elephant allows Orwell to assert his dominance, just like the elephant did with its superior strength. Furthermore, by shooting the elephant and making himself the most powerful man in the village, Orwell stands out from the crowd, not only as the only white man, but as the man who was brave enough to kill the elephant and the man who possesses weapons capable of killing the masses.

There are many similarities between Orwell and the elephant in “Shooting an Elephant”, but none more obvious than their social statuses. It is evident that Orwell shares his social position with the elephant not only by examining the difference in race compared to the elephants difference in the species, but by examining the village’s lack of respect for Orwell and the elephants when they are teamed and the village’s respect for Orwell and the elephant when they have power. Orwell and the elephant share many similarities when it comes to their social stance, but a powerful symbolism can be seen when discussing the elephant’s death and suffering. When looking at text like this, true colors of racism and power struggles become clear. Today, although the problems faced within the text are scarce, many comparable issues arise often. It is not rare to see society in the United States mistreat and disrespect authority, as well as authority misusing their power to persuade the masses into respecting them. In all, Orwell’s essay rises past the issue of time, and remains relevant even today with its moral values and quality in entertaining the reader


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