Posted: October 22nd, 2022
SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT
As a young man, George Orwell was an English police officer in what was then the English colony of Burma. This social status was a difficult one to occupy because of the hatred the Burmese felt for the British during this period of decline of English Imperialism. As he put it, “I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” One day an elephant got loose from its owner, destroyed a hut, overturned a garbage truck, killed a cow, and eventually, caught a Burmese man, grinding him into the muddy earth, killing him. As the only policeman nearby, it fell to Orwell to seek out the elephant and stop its rampage. Hearing the elephant was nearby, he acquired an elephant rifle and began to walk toward him. As he did so, virtually the entire population of the little village came out of their huts to follow him. When he found the elephant it was grazing in a field eating peacefully.
“As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant—it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery—and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided….I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.
“But at that moment, I glanced around at the crowd that had followed me… 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 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 turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys… 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 do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it…A sahib has got to act like a sahib… 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…
“When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick—one never does when a shot goes home—but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd… And afterward I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me 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.”
Source: Orwell, George. 1950. Shooting an Elephant. In Orwell, G. Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Look closely at the quoted text, paying particular attention to the first short paragraph and the beginning of the second paragraph. Notice how he uses the terms, “I” and “me.” How are the “I” and the “me” defined by George Herbert Mead and how do they relate to a third concept, “self?” (For this you may want to look back at the discussion in the text of George Herbert Mead in Chapter 1.) Take one of his phrases including “I” – “As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him.” and show how it is consistent with the definition of “I”. Then take one of the phrases including “me” – “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.” Show how that phrase is consistent with the definition of “me”. (To do this you should write a sentence for each quoting the phrase and showing how it is related to “me” or “I”.) Given Orwell’s final comment – “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” – would you say that the “I” or the “me” component of self played a greater role for him that day?
When Orwell first saw the elephant what was his definition of the situation? Define this term and cite the passage where he clearly stated his view of what should be done. Yet he did not do that in the end. Instead he shot the elephant. Does the term “negotiated order” help explain what he did? What does negotiated order mean? What phrase from the essay summarizes the negotiated order as it ended up in this essay? Was there explicit negotiation occurring? Can we have a negotiated order without explicitly negotiating it?
Three other concepts related to symbolic interaction theory are symbols, stereotypes, and self-fulfilling prophecies. Define each of these and indicate whether you believe they occur in the essay. If you do believe they occur then cite an example from the text. Some terms used in the essay would be seen as racist by today’s standards. What were those and how might those have affected expectations for how those people would behave? Do those terms likely reflect negative stereotypes? Why, for example, was Orwell the only one deemed capable of shooting the elephant when there were thousands of people present? Was there an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy? If so, what action in the text represents that self-fulfilling prophecy?
Finally, there is the concept of the social construction of reality. What is meant by that? Does this essay illustrate the social construction of reality? For example, in what passage does Orwell talk about justifying what he did? Such justifications are often attempts to make sure their definition of the situation is viewed as the socially constructed reality. (Your essay should indicate this statement is an example of an attempt at social construction.) Would Orwell have acted the same if he had been alone? Were his actions and his interpretations of events influenced by others? Even if he had been alone could he have been influenced by what he imagines other people might think?
Overall, do you feel that this perspective helps identify the most important insights in this essay?
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