On The Flip-Side: Colonist the Subaltern in “Shooting An Elephant”

I found reading “Shooting An Elephant” particularly refreshing in contrast with the rather intense, in-your-face kind of texts we’ve been dealing with in the past few weeks. Perhaps it was the darkness of Conrad’s fiction or the heavy-handedness of A Passage to India, but Orwell’s short story managed to encapsulate and tie together some key ideas about colonialism that have been bouncing around in my head over the last half of the sem.

One thing that struck me was the unspoken power of passive aggression against colonialism, embodied in the “petty” way in which the Burmese responded to the Europeans. The narrator makes it clear that these efforts are mere pinpricks, at least initially, but they do have an extraordinary effect of making him feel “imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner [he] chucked up [his] job and got out of it the better”. Often we preoccupy ourselves with a patronising sense of pity for the subaltern, the one whose voice is perpetually silenced. But the subaltern is not silent, he is active in his own way.

In fact, what was most fascinating about the story was the narrator’s epiphany of an alternative side of reality nearing the end of the story: the white man is in his own way, trapped, and perhaps, one might venture to suggest, silenced too. I could not help chuckling to myself reading about how he realises he was “only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind… when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys…”

Perhaps this is the most disconcerting truth about colonialism is not what it does to the “natives”, but the unperceived, certainly unexpected effect it has on the colonist. Something worth musing over, certainly.

One thought on “On The Flip-Side: Colonist the Subaltern in “Shooting An Elephant”

  1. very well-written elizabeth. and how you read orwell is actually very reminiscent of fanon, who argued that colonialism is a problem both for black and white…