Introduction/ Proposal


"Shooting an Elephant", by George Orwell is a fictional account of an Englishman employed in the Colonial Police force in the colonized nation of Burma, in Southeast Asia. The narrator describes his experience with an out of control elephant  and the way in which he was forced to act by the will of the supposedly subservient Burmese masses. 

Reevaluation After Stage Two:
    After completing the second stage of the hypertext project, the value of a non-traditional approach to text analysis has become more apparent.  In the first stage I had a basic framework that sought to analyze the selected passage from Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” on two fronts. First, I wanted to present the passage and target specific phrases that represent the breakdown of imperial ideology from rhetoric to practical application.  I then wanted to evaluate the passage a second time, focusing on the specific words that Orwell uses and discuss how these words provide further evidence of the breakdown of imperial rhetoric. These two approaches were going to form the bulk of my hypertext website. While these two sections remain at the center of the site, I have come to realize that the other sections can also contribute significantly to the reading of the passage.

            Initially, the historical and background information was only meant to play a secondary role.  I intended to briefly discuss the history of Burma, British colonization of Burma, George Orwell, and Orwell’s time on the Indian Police force.  As I began to work on these sections however, I realized the extent to which these sections could significantly alter the reading of the selected passage itself. Through my research of the history of Burma and the eventual colonization by the British, I discovered that the British came to power after recognizing the possibility of exploiting a highly heterogeneous and conflicting Burmese society.  I also discovered an essay written by Jeffery Meyers titled, “Orwell in Burma” that shed accurate light on Orwell’s actual experience while in Burma.  He supplies direct quotes from Orwell that echo the arguments of the selected passage.  This historical and background information provide context that allows the reader to more clearly place the events of the passage.  

            This hypertext website contributes to the thinking of this passage by firmly placing it a historical time period.  Although a work of fiction, “Shooting an Elephant” captures the mood and feelings of a man experiencing the breakdown of British imperial rhetoric first hand.  The historical information and Meyer’s description of Orwell’s time in Burma help make this passage more than just fiction.  These additional sources of information take the arguments and opinions that the two literary approaches flush out of Orwell’s short, fictional story and demonstrate how they are situated in a real historical period. 

            What remains to be done is to find a way to better tie the conclusion of “Shooting an Elephant” to the selected passage. I do not wish to analyze the conclusion to the same degree as the selected passage, but believe that its ability to produce an emotional response has a significant effect on the story and should therefore be included in this hypertext. I would like to explore in further detail the way in which the rational selected passage and the emotional conclusion combine to form a complex argument against the British imperial project.  

    For the hypertext website project, I have selected a passage from George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”. This short story describes the experience of a British colonial police officer in the colonized region of Burma who is asked to shoot an elephant that has had an attack of “must”, or wild, out of control aggression.  The passage that I have chosen focuses on the moment that the British colonial officer realizes that although he is the supposed authority in the region, it is the Burmese people who have control over his actions. He reflects on the tedious relationship between colonizer and colonized and on the myth of authority that the colonial powers presume. 

            I plan to use this hypertext website to study the breakdown of colonial rhetoric from the ruling powers of colonizing nations when applied by the individual actors in the colonized nations.  The officer in “Shooting an Elephant” clearly describes this breakdown when he mockingly reflects on the false nature of his authority.  Facing the expectant crowd of Burmese villagers, the officer realizes, “it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grabbed the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East”.  Despite the authority that both citizens and political leaders back in England presume to have over their colonized subjects in Burma, those actually attempting to employ this authority recognize the complex relationship between colonizer and colonized.  In Burma, the British officer experiences the divide between colonization in theory and colonization in practice.

            To call attention to this divide between theory and practice I first intend to provide historical background to the English colonization of Burma and to describe the people of Burma.  I also plan to provide biographical and bibliographical information about George Orwell because many of his writings, both his short stories and novels, focus on the relationship between government and subject people.  He also spent a number of years in Burma as a colonial police officer.  Whether the experience described in “Shooting an Elephant” is a factual or fictional account is unclear. Nonetheless, Orwell’s time in Burma must have had an effect on how Orwell crafted this short story. 

            I then intend to turn to the selected passage itself and focus on a number of the phrases that Orwell uses and how they have been shaped  by the breakdown of colonial rhetoric from theory to practice.  The phrase “sea of yellow faces” for example plainly exhibits racist notions of a colonizing person while also assigning the Burmese a definite and power presence. The officer looks at all of the Burmese villagers as being the same, without distinct or individual features.  He also uses the marker “yellow” to create a divide between the Burmese and the white colonizing forces.  At the same time however, the narrator is clearly afraid of the force of these people.  Describing them as a “sea” of people, the officer grants them a presence and a force far greater than his own.  He is one individual amidst a sea of others.  Even though he wears a uniform and carries a gun, it is the will of these people that dictate the events of the day. 

            Once these general phrases have been discussed, I then plan to reanalyze the passage, this time focusing on Orwell’s choice of individual words and how these words add significance to the phrases discussed in the previous analysis of the passage.  For example, words including “conjurer”, “magical”, and “absurd puppet” work against the British sensibility that is employed to justify the colonial endeavor. These words take up the awe and “un-scientific” knowledge of the colonized people that British enlightened thought traditionally criticizes.  These are however, precisely the words that Orwell employs to describe the event.  While not considered an official report, this story is still a description of an event from the perspective of a British colonial police officer. One would expect him to avoid these un-scientific descriptive words, but the narrator instead actively employs them.  This use of diction reflects a corruption of British sensibility by the colonized peoples and suggests a degradation of the colonial rhetoric of the colonizing powers.

            To finish, I also want to briefly reference the conclusion of the story.  While the conclusion will not be analyzed as closely as the selected passage, it will be included because of the way in which it operates as a dramatic and moving allegory of the colonial experience.  The narrator discusses his actual shooting of the elephant, describing in horrific detail the slow and painful death of a seemingly peaceful elephant at the hands of a British officer.  As much as any other text that I have read, this concluding passage captures the violent reality of colonization.