General thoughts on ‘Shooting an Elephant’

Somehow, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ reminds me of Kuo Pao Kun’s ‘The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole’. Other than the fact that both texts circle around the notion of power, another reason could be the use of a first-person narrative written in a sparse yet personal (almost confessional) tone. While the first-person narrative allows us to delve deep into the psychology of the narrator/ protagonist, it could also obscure and be unreliable. It’s interesting, but also rather hilarious, that Orwell presents us with a neurotic narrator. Granted, the ‘natives’ might have hated him but we (as readers) will never know if they had, indeed, treated the dangerous event as ‘their bit of fun’ or if they were actually frightened. Silencing the subjugated is often seen as disempowering but here, the unnamed narrator endows their silence with a menacing quality. He keeps reminding us that he was being watched: ‘they were watching me as much as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick’. But one easily forgets that he watches them (watching him) as well!

The short story quite obviously points out that power relations in a colony are tenuous and meanings arbitrary, with the colonizer having to act out his role and his difference. Ultimately, no matter how guilty he is for being apart of this imperial project, the narrator reinscribes himself back into the system. I’m not quite sure, however, what the elephant symbolizes. We could easily read it as a symbol of the colonized natives (white elephants were prized by ancient burmese monarchies) but could we also see it as a manifestation of colonial anxiety? Just some thoughts!

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