“Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell
Eric A. Blair, better known as 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.¹
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.
It’s often found in “Best of” anthologies, and can be read on several different levels.
Please share your observations after reading Orwell’s essay- we’d love to hear from you.
You can read Orwell’s essay here.
A point for discussion one might find worthwhile is the difference between connotation and denotation in “Shooting an Elephant.”
Connotation and Denotation
Denotative meanings are generally the literal meaning of the word, while connotative meanings are the “coloring” attached to words beyond their literal meaning. For example, the “army of people” Orwell refers to in his essay bring to mind not only a large group of people, but also a military and oppositional force. Explain the connotative and denotative meanings of the following words or phrases using this organizational chart.²
Another point for discussion . . . saving face
What is the process of saving face? Read and discuss this passage from Orwell’s essay:
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.
“Why I Write” by George Orwell
Looking for a reading pairing for our week of Orwell? Have a look at his essay, “Why I Write.”
On video . . .
Here’s a worthwhile Book TV interview about Orwell with astute literary critic Christopher Hitchens and author/editor George Packer.
For Further Reading:
George Packer’s seminal collections of Orwell’s essays
George Orwell was first and foremost an essayist, producing throughout his life an extraordinary array of short nonfiction that reflected–and illuminated–the fraught times in which he lived. “As soon as he began to write something,” comments George Packer in his foreword, “it was as natural for Orwell to propose, generalize, qualify, argue, judge–in short, to think–as it was for Yeats to versify or Dickens to invent.”
Facing Unpleasant Facts charts Orwell’s development as a master of the narrative-essay form and unites such classics as “Shooting an Elephant” with lesser-known journalism and passages from his wartime diary. Whether detailing the horrors of Orwell’s boyhood in an English boarding school or bringing to life the sights, sounds, and smells of the Spanish Civil War, these essays weave together the personal and the political in an unmistakable style that is at once plainspoken and brilliantly complex.
As a critic, George Orwell cast a wide net. Equally at home discussing Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, he moved back and forth across the porous borders between essay and journalism, high art and low. A frequent commentator on literature, language, film, and drama throughout his career, Orwell turned increasingly to the critical essay in the 1940s, when his most important experiences were behind him and some of his most incisive writing lay ahead. All Art Is Propaganda follows Orwell as he demonstrates in piece after piece how intent analysis of a work or body of work gives rise to trenchant aesthetic and philosophical commentary. With masterpieces such as “Politics and the English Language” and “Rudyard Kipling” and gems such as “Good Bad Books,” here is an unrivaled education in, as George Packer puts it, “how to be interesting, line after line.”³
. . .A bit about George Orwell . . .
Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950),better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic. His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and outspoken support of democratic socialism.
Orwell wrote literary criticism, poetry, fiction, and polemical journalism. He is best known for the allegorical novella Animal Farm (1945) and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). His non-fiction works, including The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), documenting his experience of working class life in the north of England, and Homage to Catalonia (1938), an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, are widely acclaimed, as are his essays on politics, literature, language, and culture. In 2008, The Times ranked him second on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.
Orwell’s work continues to influence popular and political culture, and the term Orwellian – descriptive of totalitarian or authoritarian social practices – has entered the language together with many of his neologisms, including Big Brother, Thought Police, Room 101, memory hole, newspeak, doublethink, proles, unperson, and thoughtcrime.
¹From the National Endowment for the Humanities.