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Elements of Fiction and Total Effect in Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell (2004)

In George Orwell’s "Shooting an Elephant", theme, plot, setting, tone, point of view, characterization, irony, symbolism, and language work together to create an impact on the reader. Certainly, all of the key literary elements cause a total effect of repulsion towards imperialism and its atrocities. Orwell wants to create awareness in the reader about the self-destruction caused by this system of government. Indeed, the short story helps the reader understand metaphorically how, even in modern times, imperialism can be a double edged sword that destroys both the conqueror and the conquered.

The theme of "Shooting an Elephant" is Orwell''s explicit attack on imperialism and its evils, based on his personal experience back when he was working at Burma under the command of the British government. Through his anecdote, he expresses clearly a general statement about man and life on earth summarized when he says: "I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys (887A)." According to George Orwell, imperialism can cause damages to both the empire and its officers who feel forced to "impress the natives (887A)" thereby losing their freedom, and to the conquered people whose freedom is limited. All of the key elements mainly support the primary theme, through the inclusion of significant details.

Plot, atmosphere, tone, and conflict also revolve around Orwell''s theme. Tone, The plot is arranged both chronologically and climactically. This helps build suspense and express the ideas clearly. The story starts when Orwell narrates his background and expresses his understanding of imperialism. George Orwell decided to follow family tradition when he worked in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police. He then narrates an anecdote to support his attack. One day, an elephant entered a state of dangerous frenzy. The person who was in charge of keeping it had searched for it and was very far from the place. The narrator was called by a subinspector to see if he could do anything about it. Then, George Orwell discovered that a coolie had been killed by the elephant and he decided to get his rifle only for defense purposes. However, a big Burmese crowd followed him as they wanted to see the elephant shot. George Orwell finally shot the elephant after a long internal conflict took place. He decided that he preferred to kill the elephant and not look as a fool. This incident taught him more than he expected: "It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism--the real motives for which despotic governments act (885B)." The plot contributes to the attack on imperialism because without the anecdote of the shooting the author could not have been very convincing as the plot includes the argument for his repulsion towards imperialism. Orwell’s overall attitude is uncertainty and bitterness. Throughout the story, there is a serious, humorless and critical tone that helps build the total effect of the story and show that his attack on imperialism is legitimate. Externally, the conflict appears to be man versus man or even against nature. The atmosphere is characterized by hatred from both parties. The Burmese hated the imperialist invader, while the usual British officials hated the Burmese. Even though George Orwell did not actually hate the Burmese but felt sympathy towards them, he does hate his job and the British government: "As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters (885A)." However, the conflict is more internal and psychological as the protagonist is fighting against himself. He had to choose combat between his ideas and his emotions. Orwell did not want to look like a fool in the eyes of the natives, so he acted the way he did. The internal conflict was not resolved until Orwell had an opportunity to ponder what he had done.

The setting makes it possible for Orwell to describe imperialism completely; how he was changed and how he got to understand this system as a sincere analyzer and observer of his society and his time. In the 1920’s Great Britain was still an imperialist country, however, the empire was declining sharply after World War One. The story takes place in Moulmein, a town in Lower Burma. The setting supports the theme because if the setting had been different, the anecdote would not have had the significance that the author gives it, and even more, it probably would not even have happened.

Point of view is also a very important aspect in the story. The story is told by a consistent and trustworthy first-person narrator who participated in the events, and was able to gain insight and wisdom after the experience. Based on George Orwell’s biography we can infer that he himself was the British officer. When he wrote the story he was a changed person compared to when the action took place. He is therefore able to understand that before he "could not get anything into perspective (885A)." Additionally, the story leads us to deduce that the narrator has become more objective as time passed. George Orwell wrote this story years after it had actually happened in the 1920’s. If the story had not been told from this perspective, the theme would not have been as strong. For example, if the story had been narrated from the point of view of the Burmese subinspector or the Burmese people, an attack on imperialism would be a very superficial argument and therefore less effective. Hence, point of view also contributes to the total effect and support of the attack to imperialism.

There are two dominant characters in the story; an elephant and its executioner. On one hand, the British officer, the executioner narrating the story, acts as a symbol of the imperial country. He is presented in the story as a round and dynamic character with mixed feelings of sympathy and ire towards the Burmese when he said he was "all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors (885A)" and that "the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest''s guts (885A)". George Orwell continuously repeats his decision not to kill the elephant. In the beginning he had "no intention of shooting the elephant (886B)." When he sees the elephant he says "''I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. I decided that would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home (887A)", which shows hesitation. At the end he expresses "Suddenly, I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all." The usage of ''after all'' gives a sense of him not having any choice in the matter. The fact that Orwell actually shoots the elephant gives the reader an uncomfortable feeling as up to that moment the reader is led to think that the officer is not going to shoot the elephant.. On the other hand, the elephant symbolizes freedom and the victims of imperialism. The elephant is compared to machinery and later it is said to have a motherly air. George Orwell wrote the story in a way that the reader feels sympathy towards the elephant. In addition, the yellow faces of the Burmese also represent the "victims" of imperialism, even though they ironically controlled Orwell. Finally, the Buddhist priest, presented more as a stereotype, is a flat character. His role in this story is mainly to provide a contrast to the actions and decisions that the protagonist took.

The use of irony in the story helps emphasize the idea presented by George Orwell. Irony becomes a key in presenting the anecdote as it helps the readers understand how being an imperialistic power is actually limiting freedom. Ironically, the natives actually control the executioner instead of being the other way around. The killing event actually makes him feel important. He only cared not to be seen as a fool by the natives whom he sees as judges: "I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool (889A)." He lost his freedom as he did what was expected of him. Finally, he was not interested in his moral righteousness as evidenced when he said: "I was very glad that coolie had been killed; it put me in right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant (889A)."

Another element that helps highlight the theme is the language used by George Orwell, especially his diction and description of the events. The word choice in the story is mostly formal. However, in some cases the author uses eastern terminology such as bazaar (eastern marketplace) and betel (leaf of a plant chewed in Burma), words from Latin, such as saecula saeculorum and in terrorem, and finally, words related to the Hindu culture such as Raj (government or rule), mahout (elephant keeper and driver) and coolie (a hired laborer). These terms show the reader a better picture of Orwell’s social position and education. Orwell’s style is simple in order to communicate the message effectively but also complex in some sections in order to express enough deepness. In addition, the writer uses imagery to help the readers visualize the situation and contribute to the total effect. This becomes very clear when he narrates the slow death of the elephant after he shot him. He describes the Burmese very vividly, and emphasizes on how the animal reacted to the gunshots: "He [the elephant] looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down (888A)." Finally, the author uses concrete and exact language when describing imperialism as he "believed that a muddled style could lead to vague thinking and that precision in both thought and writing was one of the chief defenses against political tyranny (883A)."

Through the use of symbols, Orwell conveys his theme powerfully. The importance of the shooting of the elephant lies in how the incident depicts the different aspects of imperialism. The elephant and the British officer help prove that imperialism is a double-edge sword. The shooting of the elephant is the incident that reveals that imperialism inflicts damage on both parties in an imperialistic relationship. All of the elements of the short story actually work together in order to create a great impact on the reader. The emotional and rational aspects of the plot help support the attack on Imperialism as presented by Orwell. I strongly support and share the idea that Orwell has about imperialism. It does not take me by surprise that the system is a double edged-sword. This work delighted me as I like this type of topic. Even though this story was written decades ago; its veracity is still in effect in modern times, especially in an era of a hidden imperialistic policy of the United States of America. Based on the pretext of national security against terrorist attacks, the freedom of the United States citizens is being limited. There is a growing hatred especially between the U.S. and the Islamic countries. As done previously in 1984, Orwell was able to envision the future and understand in depth how imperialist policies can be destructive. Through the use of all of the elements of the short story, George Orwell was able to create an impact on the reader and create or support repulsion towards imperialism.