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The ironies in the essay "Shooting an Elephant"

George Orwell is one of the most renowned practitioners of English prose in the 20th century whose aim is not to be a purveyor of fine writing but to tum political writing into a new art. To him, political writing is primarily concerned with moral issues, which we find in one of his most celebrated essays "Shooting an Elephant", not with dogma and doctrines. The essay is his attempt to draw upon his five-year policeman experience in a lower district of Burma.

To find out the ironies in the essay we must know what an irony is. An irony is commonly and generally defined as the incongruity between expectations and achievements. We also find irony in the situation if a person has to go against his will. The situation becomes ironic when a person has to do something being compelled by the situation. The entire plot of the event or happenings in the essay "Shooting an Elephant" is based on the irony of the writer's fate and his feelings.

Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" is based on the experience the author gathered during his stay in lower Burma as a sub-divisional police officer. His very occupation posed to be fatally ironic for the writer. We must see him first as a writer and then as a police officer. As a writer he definitely possessed a developed mind, a different outlook and a strong sensitiveness in any situation. A human personality was within him. This greatly differentiates him from the other police officers. Later Orwell dismissed his five years stay in Burma as "Five boring years within the sound of bugles." Even he becomes a dishwasher in Paris and tramp in London in order to atone his being a policeman.

The second irony is that though he did not like his job, he had to carry out this responsibility. Christopher Hollis, a fellow Etonian, remembers when he visited him in 1925, 'he was at pains to be the imperial policeman. When Orwell tried to explain what kind of 'dirty work of empire', made him guilty, he listed, the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the cowed faces of long-term convicts and the scarred buttocks of men who have been flogged with bamboos'. His hopeless state of mind reveals itself when he says, "But I had nothing in perspective. I was you0png and ill-educated."

Third irony is that he could feel the pathos, the dilemma and the evil of the imperialism practised in that part of the world, and yet he betrayed or rather forcefully ignored the feelings of bitter outrage at this role enforced on him as a representatives of imperialism. On the one side is his sympathy for the victims of imperialism and on the other hand his obligation to fulfil the responsibilities requisite of his service as a police officer. The irony lies in his being a split into two personalities. In his own voice, "I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saccula sacculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts." But he clarified his position by stating that feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism."

The irony is embedded in the very nature of imperialism. The irony lies in the author's perception and his realisation that how futile the power of imperialism is. As imperialism renders a white man the image of a conventional figure of sahib, he forced by the circumstances wears a mask and starts acting to conform to that mask that he dons. Imperialism snatches away from a white man more that it bestows. It takes away the precious jewel of freedom. The author states in a very direct language, "I perceived in that moment that when a 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. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives" and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him." The irony is painful when we understand that in spite of being placed in the top, a white man cannot follow his will and better judgement: though apparently placed in the position of a ruler, but in reality the ruled are in the driving seat; it is the ruled - the natives - who control the situation though unconsciously. This also heightens the sense of irony.

The crux of the irony in the essay comes when the event reaches its climax, when the police officer is out there with a rifle in his hand to kill the elephant. Orwell describes his own position in the following words - "and suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at that moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. 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." Because every white man's life in the East was 'one long struggle not to be laughed at', the narrator, despite his reluctance. could not retreat from a situation when two thousand people are at his heels So the whole situation left the narrator with 'only one alternative': his judgement has little value in this regard; his will power hardly has any significance; he is now circumstance-bound. Though he considers that the killing of the elephant would be a 'murder' and a great economic loss, he had to kill the animal only not to be laughed later and not to lose his face of a 'sahib'.


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