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Home » , » Comment on the narrator in the essay "Shooting an Elephant."
George Orwell was a controversial writer who produced a wealth of fictional and non-fictional works which have provoked numerous and diverse critical responses. In "Shooting an Elephant" Orwell's identity as a writer would come into sharp focus. It is one of his best and subsequently one of his most famous essays. "Shooting an Elephant", one of Orwell's most celebrated essays, describes the execution of a tame beast, which has run must' and Orwell's simultaneous realisation of "the hollowness, the futility of the white men's dominion in the East". This autobiographical essay has its distinctive features as the narrator here dextrously blends narration with story to bring his ideas home.
narrator in essay shooting an elephant

The narrator in the essay 'Shooting an Elephant' narrates the events in first person point of view. It is the narrator's views on imperialism that we come across in the essay. Though as an autobiographical essay it narrates one apparently simple event in the life of the author during his service in Lower Burma as a police officer, the main focus of the essay is to throw light on the evil side of imperialism. He wrote the essay much later than he experienced his life as an officer. Thus we see two Orwells in this essay- one Orwell who experienced the event and another Orwell who later thought about it and wrote the essay.

From the very outset the narrator in the essay is in a precarious state because of his being split in two personalities. On the one side is his strong detestation for imperialistic rule, of which he himself is a part, as it destroyed, in his view, the moral balance between the ruler and the ruled and on the other side his sympathy for the victims of imperialism. The narrator, at the beginning young and naive, constantly met with perplexing and upsetting' happenings. He hated his job 'more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear, because it allowed him to view the evil aspects of imperialism from a close quarter. The narrator describes his precarious state in the following words -"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." The psychological conflict within the narrator is quite obvious in the statement.

The narrator, as he belonged to the white man community and more importantly to the ruling class or oppressors, was immediately endowed with the image of the conventionalised figure of a 'sahib'. As a 'sahib' belonging to the ruling class he dons a 'mask' and starts conducting in a way which befits his mask without being least bothered by his will power or judgement. It is the mask that gets the upper hand and poses a guiding factor in any white man's life in the East. His duty to his job and country override his sense of individual conscience and morality. He must become someone he is not. His public self and his private self are at odds with one another. It is the hollow existence that a white man adopts in the imperialistic rule. Orwell sums up the whole situation in one sentence "And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was a long struggle not to be laughed at."

The essay depicts the execution of a tame animal. The whole essay centres on the trifling event of killing of an elephant, which has allegedly gone 'must'. Though apparently an insignificant event, it is of paramount importance so far the narrator is concerned as it furnished the narrator with a clear view and understanding of imperialism. In his own words - "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." Orwell is informed that an elephant has gone mad and is causing damage to public life and properties. He comes out with a rifle to investigate into the matter faces the greatest dilemma in his life. News spread all around and people gathered on the scene in the hope of something spectacular. Standing before a crowd of yellow faces of about two thousand natives Orwell realises the hollowness of the white man's dominance in the East "I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly And it was at this 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. I perceived in this moment that when the white man tums tyrant it is his own freedom that he  destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalised figure of a sahib." As every white man in the East was destined to impress the natives, Orwell decided, as he felt he was left with no altematives, against his better judgement that it would a 'murder' to kill an elephant and a great economic loss, to kill the elephant. .He eventually kills the beast as he finds it impossible to step down from the position he has marched upto. His mind was engrossed not with the thought of saving his skin but with what the crowd expected of him.

The narrator does not say much about his life, his education or his upbringings. In the essay his focus is only on his stay in Lower Burma as a police officer. He is concerned with the experiences that he gathered there. In the essay we come across two Orwells - the young Orwell who is experiencing the events and the old and experienced Orwell who is writing now about his experiences. The later Orwell no more is a part of the imperialistic tyranny. He now gives vent to his feelings and thought freely. The old Orwell now says without the least hesitation that the act, which he felt compelled by giving in to the pressure created by the yellow faces behind him, was legally justified but morally reprehensible. He found his legal ground on the fact that the coolie, injured by the attack of the elephant, later died. The old Orwell is painfully honest in his confession - "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."

Orwell justified his action to the rest of the world, but he failed to justify it to himself. He felt the moral qualms of his conscience. This is why the old Orwell is awfully honest in his confession at the end of the essay. It is this cool analysis from the part of the old Orwell that differentiates him from the young Orwell who, during his stay in Burma like all other white men part of colonial machinery, grew in his awareness of how others perceived them and the degree to which they surrender or succumb to the expectations of others. Everything he did in Burma was designed to prevent him from being laughed at and humiliated by the natives. It would be pertinent to mention here the fact that Orwell was only in his 20s and was under severe emotional pressure from all the sides. Ultimately this hardship led him to resign from his post later.

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