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“SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT” BY GEORGE ORWELL

Introduction

Eric A. Blair, better known by his pen name, George Orwell, is today best known for his last two novels, the anti-totalitarian works Animal Farm and 1984. He was also an accomplished and experienced essayist, writing on topics as diverse as anti-Semitism in England, Rudyard Kipling, Salvador Dali, and nationalism. Among his most powerful essays is the 1931 autobiographical essay "Shooting an Elephant," which Orwell based on his experience as a police officer in colonial Burma.

This lesson is designed to help you read Orwell's essay both as a work of literature and as a window into the historical context about which it was written.

 

Individual written project covering two selections by George Orwell (1903-1950)

DO EITHER PROJECT

Use the following links to research the historical aspect of this essay.

Shooting an Elephant

Burmese History

British Empire in India

Biography of George Orwell

 

PROJECT ONE:

The Price of Saving Face…..Peer Pressure

Orwell states "As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him." Later he says "…I did not want to shoot the elephant." Despite feeling that he ought not take this course of action, and feeling that he wished not to take this course, he also feels compelled to shoot the animal. In this activity students will be asked to discuss the reasons why Orwell felt he had to kill the elephant.

READ THE FOLLOWING EXCERPT AND ANSWER THE QUESTIONS:

“It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone…. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong, those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probably that some of them would laugh. That would never do.”

QUESTION:   Orwell repeatedly states in the text that he does not want to shoot the elephant.  In addition, by the time that he has found the elephant, the animal has become calm and has ceased to be an immediate danger. Despite this, Orwell feels compelled to execute the creature. Why?

Use research resource to validate your answer (British Empire in India, Burmese History).

QUESTION:   Orwell makes it clear in this essay that he was not a particularly talented rifleman.  In the excerpt above he explains that by attempting to shoot the elephant he was putting himself into grave danger. But it is not a fear for his "own skin" which compels him to go through with this course of action.  Instead, it was a fear outside of "the ordinary sense." What did Orwell fear?  Did he show a lack of moral courage?                                              

Use research to validate your answer (British Empire in India).

QUESTION:   In colonial Burma a small number of British civil servants, officers and military personnel were vastly outnumbered by their colonial subjects.  They were able to maintain control, in part, because they possessed superior firepower- a point made clear when Orwell states that the "Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against (the elephant)." Yet, Orwell's description of the relationship between the Burmese and Europeans indicates that the division of power was not necessarily that simple.  How did the Burmese resist their colonial masters through non-violent means?  Show examples from the text to support your insight.

Use research to validate your insight and discussion (British Empire in India, Burmese History).

QUESTION:   Explain how you would feel and what you would do if you were in Orwell's position.  Include your insight between physical and moral courage as it relates to Orwell’s handling of this situation.

QUESTION:   Although “Shooting an Elephant” is an essay, it includes many of the elements found in a short story.  Review the essay identifying such elements as setting, characters, plot,, point of view, and theme.  Then discuss why you think Orwell chose to convey his ideas by narrating the tale of the shooting incident.

Use research to validate your analysis (Shooting an Elephant).

QUESTION  According to Orwell, “it is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant—comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.”  Conduct Internet or library research on the work elephants do today and have done in the past.  Prepare a detailed analysis of your findings.

Use Internet sources to validate your analysis.  (Web page has sources)

 

PROJECT TWO:

Persuasive Perspectives Using First Person or Third Person

Orwell was both an accomplished and a prolific essayist whose work covered a large number of topics. Many of his essays are written as third person commentaries or reviews, such as his "Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels." Orwell often chose to include himself in his essays, writing from a first person perspective, such as that employed in one of his most famous essays, "Politics and the English Language."

In these works Orwell uses the first person perspective as a rhetorical strategy for supporting his argument. For example, he opens his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" with the following lines:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language- so the argument runs- must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism,…. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

 

In the paragraph which follows the above excerpt Orwell switches from the first person plural to the first person singular. By the second paragraph, however, he has already included his audience in his argument: “we cannot do anything; our civilization is decadent.”  If you disagree with these sentiments, then you are ready to follow Orwell's argument over the following ten pages.

While he does not use the inclusive "we" in "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell's use of the first person perspective is a rhetorical strategy. Discuss Orwell's decision to utilize the first person perspective rather than the third person perspective.

QUESTION:   How does seeing the incident through both the eyes of Eric Blair, the young colonial police officer, and George Orwell, the reflective essayist, support Orwell's argument?

Use research to validate answer (Web page sources, and Shooting an Elephant).

QUESTION:   How does the story change by having the narrator not only present, but active, in the action of the story?

Search Internet for additional analysis.

QUESTION How does the use of the first person perspective create a sense of sympathy or understanding for Orwell's position?

Search Internet for additional detail or analysis.  

QUESTION:   Re-write a section of "Shooting an Elephant" from a different perspective- such as in the third person. What is gained by this shift in perspective? What is lost?

Use research source (Shooting an Elephant).