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The psychological complexity of the narrator In the essay "Shooting an Elephant"

"Shooting an Elephant" is one of the most arousing and popular essays by George Orwell. Orwell is noted for his autobiographical essays. "Shooting an Elephant" is also an autobiographical essay in which the author describes in realistic and graphic details his own experiences in Burma during the British colonial rule in the sub-continent as a sub-divisional police officer. In the essay the author very skilfully and with much aptness delineates the inner mental conflict and psychological complexity in which he was placed. From the analysis of his mental conflict and psychological complexity we find him in the midst of predicament.
essay on psychological complexity

In the essay Orwell describes his position as a sub-divisional police omcer in Burma. He was posted in Moulmein in lower Burma. He was hated by a large number of people. There was bitter anti- European feeling in the town. People did not have the courage to start a riot, but they could tease or harass the Europeans or laugh at the narrator. When he was tripped on the football field by some Burmese player the author would get nervous at seeing the yellow faces of the native, especially the young Buddhist priests sneering at him. He was upset by the impertinent behaviours of the Burmese. He was so annoyed that he came to consider 'imperialism' an 'evil' thing and was pondering of leaving his job in the British ruled India. However, his stay in the place as a police officer provided him with the opportunity to view everything, especially the by-products, of colonialism from a close quarter. From the narration in the essay we find that Orwell was theoretically against imperialism and all for the natives. The sight of prisoners and convicts who were cruelly treated oppressed him with an intolerable sense of guilt. On the one hand he hated the 'British Raj' and regarded it as 'an unbreakable tyranny' and on the other hand he had a great contempt for the foolish, jeering natives. Such contradictory feelings, remarks the author are 'normal by-products of imperialism', the very statement is a testimony to the predicament he discovered himself.Orwell's predicament is nicely observed when he approaches to shoot the elephant around which the whole essay enters. He is indecisive whether he should kill the elephant or not. He was at the view that shooting a working elephant was 'comparable to destroy a huge and costly piece of machinery. The elephant did not appear dangerous to him and he was utterly reluctant to shoot the elephant. It was a moment of revelation for him. Standing there with a rifle in his hand before a crowd of natives who virtually leading him to and fro, he for the first time deeply felt the hollowness, the futility of the white men's dominance in the East. He describes his predicament in the following words - "Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd - seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalised figure of a sahib."

The painful realisation that he was not at his will threw the author in a precarious condition. The conventional image of sahib robed him of the freedom of choosing his own actions- "A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things." The vigilance and cautiousness that the author had to maintain constantly to avoid bring laughed at gave his life a nightmarish touch during his stay in Burma. He was caught in such a psychologically complex situation that he was automatically more concerned with the satisfaction of the natives than his own -- "To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing-no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at." The last line of the just quoted part explicitly gives vent to the psychological conflict that the author was undergoing during his stay in the British India.

The oscillation to decide whether to kill the elephant or not further heightens the psychological complexity of the narrator. However, he was soon resolved as his circumstances provided him with no alternatives but to go forward and to kill the animal. In that situation he was so engrossed with the concern of not to appear frightcned. before the crowd of yellow faces that took little consideration of saving his 'own skin'. "The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me perused, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do. There was only one altemative. I shoved the cartridge into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim."

In the essay "Shooting an Elephant" Orwell could not grow a liking for the oppressive British colonial rule in India and felt ashamed of being a part of it. He was ever disturbed and vexed by the conflict that kept on going in his mind. The conflict arose from the fact that on the one hand he opposed the dirt things of imperialism and considered it as 'an evil thing' and on the other hand he himself belonged to that oppressor class. He loathed the tyrannous and oppressive rule of a handful British on a large number of native Burmese people. Orwell nourished an anti-imperialistic feeling but he could not give vent to his feelings as he himself was a part of imperialism. His sympathy for the natives and his position among the oppressed rulers made it difficult for him to continue his job as a police officer. The anti-European feeling of the natives aggravated the situation for the author. Ultimately, Orwell quitted his job in Burma and left for England, though not mentioned in the essay.

Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" is commonly considered as a critique of colonialism. The author's bitter experiences in Burma as a sub-divisional police officer are at the centre of this essay. The autobiographical essay gives expression to the psychological complication the author suffered. He, like all other white men in the East who belonged to the ruling class, put on a mask bearing the image of 'sahib and thus, against his will' learnt how to conform to the norms of a 'sahib'. The overwhelming thought of not being laughed at by the natives often led the white men to act against their will and better judgement. The concluding part of the essay also alludes to the psychological complexity of the writer - "And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."


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