George Orwell’s three major books of travel writing–Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), and Homage to Catalonia (1938)–revived the tradition of excursionary literature as social and political analysis. “Into Unknown England” books were initiated by reform-minded Victorian and Edwardian authors.
In his three travel books Orwell, who casts himself as a representative of English “lower-upper-middle-class” and as an imaginary social conscience, ventured into the slums of Paris and London, the mining towns of northern England, and the battlefront of the Spanish Civil War, addressing what he saw as a largely conservative and apathetic English readership. Orwell sought to prove that class inequality and the corruption of progressive political ideals were, in his evolving socialist estimation, damning England and the Western world to social division, provincial bigotry, and eventually world war.
Yet Orwell’s deep acculturation in traditional middle-class British mores and patriotic sentiments clashed with his sensitivity to class and racial bias. In particular Orwell’s travel essays on Marrakech and Burma (now Myanmar) are ambiguous but important examples of how literature that seeks sympathy with or advocacy for other cultures and groups also demonstrates how the identities of writers, their subjects, and those who read their work are constructed by intercultural exchange.
These complications, coupled with the political inconsistencies within Orwell’s worldview over the course of his lifetime, have led to warring interpretations of his legacy. Recent critical debate has focused on Orwell’s reliability as an observer, his idiosyncratic views on socialism, and the degree to which his reputation for fairness, decency, and common sense are attributable to his insistence on empirically verifiable political and moral “truths. ” Orwell was accepted into the Indian Imperial Police in 1922.
In October he began serving as assistant superintendent of police in Rangoon (Yangon), Burma. There Orwell quickly became uncomfortably self-conscious of his role as intruder, alien, and symbol of British authority and of the ways in which these aspects of position obscured and prejudiced understanding of the indigenous population. “A Hanging” (Adelphi, August 1931), his first published work of real travel writing, is a report of the execution of a Hindu prisoner to which Orwell, in the role of British police officer, was both inactive bystander and symbol of authority.
The detached exposition of the event–and the conspicuous absence of political commentary by the author–stands in for Orwell’s disquieting implication in the death of one whose anonymity is defined as his invisibility to the abstract system of rule under which he lives. The essay implies what Orwell stated much more overtly in “Marrakech,” an essay published in the Christmas 1939 issue of New Writing: “People with brown skins are next door to invisible. . . . All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact.
The people have brown faces–besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? ” “A Hanging” is the first ambiguous evidence of Orwell’s recognition of what contemporary criticism calls the “Orientalist” construction by Western cultures of the identities of non-Western persons. Recent criticism has noted, for example, that Orwell’s portrait of the Hindu prisoner reinforces the anonymity of Indian culture to Western eyes even as it critiques colonial dominion. “Shooting an Elephant” Shooting an Elephant” depicts a cycle of resentment and violence, in part obvious, in part subtle. Obvious is the fact that, in oppressing the Burmese, the British incur their righteous wrath. Orwell spares little in his picture of the imperial order. A colonial policeman sees “the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. 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 have been flogged with bamboos. ” The Empire has “clamped down . . upon the will of prostrate peoples. ” A humiliated people understandably hates its contemptor and seeks the means to return the disfavor of conquest; absent a direct means, indirect means must suffice, as when the anger that the crowd feels towards the narrator as an agent of empire gets deflected to the elephant. But is Orwell condoning the crowd’s behavior, or his own, pressured by the crowd? No, no more than he condones the British Empire’s behavior in its Asian dominions, or his own behavior in the service of the Empire.
If the British presence, enforcing itself by violence against the Burmese, is unjust, violating the intuitive rules of universal humanity, then the Burmese persecution of individual Europeans is no less unjust according to the same criterion. The most that one can say in mitigation of Burmese cruelty is that it is a response to British cruelty, but cruelty is never, under any circumstances, just. Justice consists in the opposite of imitative violence: It consists in restraint, consideration, compassion, and tolerance, none of which is exhibited by either side in the British-Burmese conflict.
The key to the moral content of “Shooting an Elephant” lies in a chain of identifications made by the narrator, beginning with his identification of the trampled Dravidian with the victim of the crucifixion. The dead man is truly an innocent victim whom the elephant, in his rogue career, has charged and trampled; he has humiliated the man in the root-sense of the word by grinding him into the humus or mud. It is a senseless, undeserved death.
When the narrator pulls the trigger, the elephant collapses into the mud, making the image of him congruent with the image of the dead Dravidian. Overcome by the wounded animal’s suffering, the narrator identifies, empathizes, with it, and having authored the creature’s misery, he tries to end it. All of these identifications (Dravidian with Jesus, elephant with Dravidian, narrator with elephant) come together with an earlier image that of the humiliated Burmese in the Imperial jail, the “prostrate peoples” victimized by Empire.
Readers should not forget that the narrator, too, has been humiliated, tripped up on the soccer-field and made the focus of cackling scorn. No group in “Shooting an Elephant” holds the monopoly on victimhood; every group is capable of persecution. This is to say that all groups are human and prove their humanity by displaying the same propensity to focus their “aimless” resentment by imitating such actions of others as tend (perhaps quite accidentally, perhaps by a prior meditation) to designate a victim, whereupon, unconstrained by effective (i. . , moral) order, they converge on the victim and immolate him. The narrator’s disgust is thus not simply with an unjust British Empire, but with “the younger empires that are going to supplant it,” a calculatedly ambiguous phrase which suggests that humanity will remain perennially liable to its own basest motives, empire succeeding empire, world without end.
The only exit from this eternal cycle of resentment and violence, followed by counter-resentment and counter-violence, is a type of consciousness which can turn its back on the fascination of such things and assimilate the knowledge about what human beings are, at base, and how their worst proclivities might be curbed. Significantly, in introducing his story, the narrator says that, before he killed the elephant, he “could get nothing into perspective. ” Afterwards, he understands that his own vanity caused his assimilation to the crowd and made him the instrument of its blood-lust. I had done it,” he says, “solely to avoid looking a fool. ” He has crossed from the unconsciousness of being the puppet of a spontaneous collective killing to the consciousness of his own vulnerability to senseless imitation and participation mystique. One does not achieve such consciousness without an accompanying guilt. ? Works Cited Patterns for college. “shooting an elephant. ” 1936 George Orwell. 8 September 2010 “George Orwell. ” 2010.
Biography. com 8 September 2010 http://www. biography. com/articles/George-Orwell-9429833.