In the essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell succeeds greatly in demonstrating his distaste and the evil of British imperialism. Using figurative language to support his points, he tells the story of a personal anecdote in which he shoots and kills an elephant in Burma, which was a British colony. Orwell explains how he was influenced with peer pressure and how he feels as if he was forced to kill the elephant even though he did not want to. He displays his view of imperialism as tyrannical and illogical in nature by vividly depicting the death of such a majestic creature as an elephant. Orwell’s purpose of his essay is to show the evil of imperialism, prejudice against the colonized, and the influence of peer pressure. Orwell uses different comparisons, vivid imagery, connotations and denotations, and his intended audience to successfully
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Orwell’s essay takes place in Burma where a normally tame elephant has run out of control. Orwell explains how he was a policeman here who was alienated by the Burmans. The people do not accept him because he is British and feel resentment towards him and his country for reducing them to an inferior status in their own country. When he arrives in the town, he is informed about the chaos the elephant has caused. He proceeds to question the villagers about the elephant’s location. When he gets contradicting stories about the elephant’s location he uses a paradox by saying, “that is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.” He is referring to everyone who lives in the east, which illustrates his prejudice towards the colonized easterners. He then stumbles upon a dead Burman man, whom he describes as a black Dravidian coolie that had been trampled by the elephant. Dravidian is a family of languages spoken in Southern India and a coolie is an offensive term for an employee, who is treated unfairly as one of many unworthy of concern. The dead man is used as a metaphor of the entire Burman people because they are subjugated and prejudiced against.
Eventually, Orwell discovers the elephant quietly eating grass in a field; the elephant’s wildness had subsided. He takes his elephant rifle as a precautionary measure with no preconceived intention of actually killing such a valuable work animal. At the end of the essay, Orwell is overwhelmed by peer pressure and does not want to look like a fool in front of the villagers who expect him to shoot the elephant so he ultimately conforms and kills the elephant. Orwell uses a metaphor here in which compares himself to a puppet manipulated by the Burman people. This metaphor shows the readers that Orwell felt as if he had no power over his actions. When he thinks about the consequences he might face for killing the elephant he says that “he was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put him legally in the right and it gave him a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant.” This statement shows that he did not care that a man had died, but rather that he was happy to be able to use the accident to justify his actions. The elephant dies an extremely slow death which makes the officer feel guilty. Orwell convinced himself that he had a right to kill the elephant even though he knew deep down that he had no such right. This experience is what makes Orwell criticizes imperialism and himself for acting for Britain and to save his face in the village.
The death of the elephant is described in great detail and with many vivid images. There are similes used to compare the blood that oozed out of the elephant to red velvet. Another simile is used to compare the falling of the elephant to a huge rock tumbling. These similes provide mental images that help the reader visualize the incident. There is also an onomatopoeia used when the author describes the breaths of the elephant as long and rattling which also helps the reader add sound to his or her mental picture of the situation. Much imagery is used to describe the elephant’s death with descriptions of how long it took for the elephant to fall down and what physical bodily changes took effect in the elephant while it was falling. This imagery is a necessity that Orwell successfully uses to enhance the suspense and dramatic death of the elephant.
The intended audience of this essay is the English people as a whole and the Burman community. The essay hints towards this specific audience by the use of particular words such as “coolie” and “Dravidian.” These words would only be known by British people or Burman people. The essay was written to show the English that imperialism is a cruel system and one that should be abolished, a fact already well-known to the Burman people. Orwell effectively uses the death of the elephant as a metaphor of British imperialism in Burma. Burma went through three wars between Britain before Britain finally took the village over. There is a connection between the three wars and the three shots that Orwell put into the elephant. The elephant is a symbol of Burma and its struggle to prosper under Britain’s control. The fact that the elephant still lives after the third shot is a metaphor of how the Burmese people are still fighting and still have hope after the three wars with Britain.
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Orwell also uses connotations and denotations in the essay. For instance, he references the crowd of people behind him as an army of people. This statement makes readers not only think of a large crowd but one that is military-like and forces Orwell to do what he knows is wrong by shooting the elephant. Orwell uses an anaphora in the line “some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot” by repeating the word “some” and the word “all.” This repetition enhances the emphasis on these two words and shows the excitement within the Burmans over the incident with the elephant.
All these examples and use of figurative language eventually lead up to the conclusion that imperialism is ineffective. This essay shows readers that humans can be influenced very easily and the harm of imperialism upon humans. Orwell effectively demonstrates these themes by showing how he, supposedly the higher power, was turned into a victim. Orwell implies that it is tragic how humans will engage in activities to avoid looking foolish in front of others. By relating the dead Burman, the pressure to shoot the elephant, and the painfully slow death of the elephant, Orwell brings together his thesis and successfully shows through his personal anecdote and figurative language that imperialism is evil and wrong.
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