Reflections on George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”
George Orwell’s essay Shooting an Elephant really struck me for two reasons. Firstly he is an excellent storyteller. Whilst the piece is called an essay, it really is a captivating story that transports the reader to the hustle and bustle of East Asia. Secondly, he describes situations I recognize personally, and the familiarity of the narrator’s experiences with my own astounded me.
Our situations are obviously not identical. I’m sure it will not surprise anyone that I was not a British officer in Burma in the 1930’s, but like the narrator, I lived in East Asia (Vietnam) for a few years so I really sympathise with his struggles. The line “Every white mans life in the east is an endless struggle not to be laughed at” is one I felt very strongly and personally. I was a teenager when I moved there and one of the first four Caucasian students my school had ever had. The first few months were overwhelming isolating whilst simultaneously being constantly aware that the eyes of others were always on you. Even though I eventually settled in, there was still a constant awareness of being different. The laughter of the other students became mostly friendly, rather than something to dread, but there was always the conscious effort to do things Right.
Additionally, I too have seen an escaped elephant rampaging and causing havoc. I’d imagine this places Orwell and I as part of a rather niche club of westerners. For school camp, we spent one night on ‘island’ among a river system. There were two horribly neglected Asian elephants tied to trees on short chains. They were there for tourism but we gave them a wide berth other than pitying glances. They didn’t seem friendly enough to approach. One day were up at the dining hall having lunch on the deck when a great commotion arose. We all looked up to see one of the elephants had escaped and was on the run from it’s handlers. The island was not particularly large, not more than a few hundred meters wide and barely twice as long, so the elephant was running them in circles. Unlike Orwell’s audience, we were cheering for the elephant. We knew there was no way for it to escape, but we cheered every time it pasted us, reveling in the chaos and the elephants taste of freedom. The men chasing it down probably felt a lot like the narrator in Orwell’s tale. Fortunately our tents were pitched among the trees so they were safe, the archery range did not fare so well. Eventually the elephant was caught and dragged back to the tree to be chained once more. It was a sad sight, but we liked to think it would remember its wild run that day, and the young people hoping for it’s impossible freedom. I pity the narrator and the actions he felt he had to take, and I am glad I did not have to shoot my elephant.
PS. This is not the closest near death experience on that camp, nor is it the craziest animal tale on a school trip.