Name Instructor English 15 October 2010 “Death of an Elephant”: Symbolism in Orwell As a former business major, whenever I read, whether fiction or non-fiction, I tend to focus too much on the surface meaning—the facts—and I often miss the subtle symbolism and deeper meaning of a piece of literature. As an English major, I am attempting to change, but I am often skeptical of symbolism, fearing that we may be reading too much into an author’s words. For me, an assignment to discuss the symbolism in a piece of writing presents a challenge.
George Orwell, however, makes reading between the lines and uncovering symbolism in his essays fairly simple. He gives up importance evidence that his works do contain deeper meaning in “Why I Write” when he says, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism” (Orwell 67). He has been relatively successful because through his use of symbolism he avoids the didactic preaching that most intelligent people dismiss as manipulation or propaganda.
The elephant, the most memorable and moving image in his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” must have political significance. The elephant, with its many human characteristics, symbolizes the Burmese people in that it is dominated and oppressed, it rebels against that dominance and oppression, and it dies a slow, agonizing death. An elephant makes an appropriate symbol for people in general because elephants are similar to humans in a number of ways.
In his book When Elephants Weep, Jeffrey Masson tells of elephants having deep humanlike emotions: “from a Kenyan ‘elephant orange’ comes a report of baby African elephants who have seen their families killed by poachers and witnessed the tusks being cut off the bodies. These young animals wake up screaming in the night” (45). The young elephants, it seems, are having nightmares just as young human children would have in similar circumstances; they appear to be agonizing over the loss of their loved ones. Masson also states that “Charles Darwin [. . ] was not able to observe animals shedding emotional and called weeping one of the ‘special expressions of man’ Darwin noted one exception: the Indian elephant” (106). Elephants are unique in their similarity to humans; they are highly intelligent, hard working, social animals, with a capacity to feel sorrow and pain. Orwell is aware of the sensitivity and intelligence of the elephant and tells us of his reluctance to shoot it with its “grandmotherly air” (38), saying, in fact, that “it would be murder to shoot him”(38).
The elephant has so many human characteristics, in fact, that when Orwell kills the elephant it is almost as though he is killing a human. The elephant’s sheer size makes it capable of representing more than just a single human; it represents a people: the Burmese people. The elephant in Orwell’s essay is specifically like the Burmese people in that it is subjected to oppression and violence at the hands of a person, or group of people, supposedly more intelligent and civilized. A large, intelligent animal like an elephant could only be controlled by a smaller animal, like a human being, through mental domination and fear.
The act of taming and domesticating such a large, wild, sensitive animal must involve, at some point, physical punishment. Many would argue that the act of taming an elephant is, per se, cruel just as one society dominating and oppressing another is, in itself, cruel. The elephant was kept in chains, forced to work, and looked upon as a “huge and costly piece of machinery” (37), not as a living, breathing, feeling animal. The elephant performed his duties, not out of respect for the mahout, but to avoid punishment. The Burmese people are also held captive, but the British used guns where the mahout used chains.
Orwell describes the treatment the Burmese received at the hands of the British in animal-like terms: “The wretched prisoners huddled in the stinking cages [. . . ]the gray cowed faces of the long term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboo”(35). They were cages, as animals are caged, and they were flogged with bamboo as an unruly animal would be flogged. They seem to be afforded little or no human dignity and were beaten into submission and controlled through fear, like animals.
He even describes their faces as gray, not the color of a healthy human face, the color of an elephant’s face. Later he refers to the Burmese as “beasts” (35). Like the elephant, the Burmese obeyed their oppressors, not out of respect, but out of fear of punishment. For both the Burmese people and the elephant, however, anger proves stronger than fear, and a rebellion results. The Burmese people rebel, through words and taunts, against the British rule, and the elephant has an attack of “must,” breaks his chains, and rampages through the bazaar rebelling against its mahout.
Just as there is some wild, freedom-loving, instinct in the elephant that cannot be subjugated, there is a sense of pride and love of freedom within the Burmese that refuses to die. The Buddhist priests were the embodiment of this pride; Orwell says regarding the priests, “There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer ant Europeans”(35). The priests were, in fact, voicing the opinions of most of the Burmese people.
They had an obligation, as the religious representatives of the Burmese, to make the unhappiness of the people known to their oppressors. They missed no opportunity to voice their displeasure, and “in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter” (35). They were, in fact, able to create a general feeling of malevolence and resistance towards the British, making their oppressors almost as unhappy as they were. Their constant jeers and insults were effective, more effective, in arousing Orwell’s anger, than the elephant’s rampage.
Orwell did not want to kill the elephant for his rampage; he realized that the elephant was basically a docile creature, and one temporary act of insanity should not bring about a death sentence. However, he is not so sympathetic regarding the Buddhist priests; he tells us, “I thought the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts”(36). Ironically, Orwell does not kill a Buddhist priest, but he does shoot, and kill the elephant. The elephant’s death symbolizes the death of the Burmese peoples’ freedom, and sense of national pride.
Both depart with difficulty and pain at the hands of the British. The elephant, once shot, dies “very slowly and in great agony” (40). Orwell tells us, “I waited a long time for him to die”(40). He describes the elephant’s slow, agonizing death in great detail; it becomes the focal point of the essay. At one point Orwell says of the dying elephant, “One could have imagined him thousands of years old”(40). We can easily imagine that the Burmese society was thousands of years old, with ancient customs and traditions cherished by the people and unappreciated by outsiders, like the British.
The British waited a long time for the customs and pride of the Burmese people to die once British dominion was in place. Their undying pride is seen in their refusal to submit quietly to British rule. Orwell, as a police officer, and representative of the British empire often felt their resistance; this is evident when he says, “insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance” (35).
Word Count 1277 The entire essay “Death of an Elephant” is available through the public domainn at http://georgeorwellnovels. com/essays/shooting-an-elephant/ as