Race and the Law in “Shooting an Elephant”

In his article, Partha Chatterjee looked at a certain opinion in Britain that felt that the colonized people, the Indians specifically, were immoral, irrational, ignorant and unfit for taking leadership in a government that is based on rationality. This idea was then used to justify not putting the natives in positions of power. 

 

In “Shooting an Elephant”, I think George Orwell upsets this justification. At the end of the story, the narrator points out that colonial power is enforced through bureaucratic and legal systems. The narrator was “legally” right to have shot the elephant because the law said it was the right thing to do. The owner could do nothing (presumably, he could not take legal action against the narrator) because the law does not value his rights as he “was only an Indian”. In other words, the story seems to highlight that the reason the colonial powers put the natives at a position of inferior power is so they can do as they like in the colonized land without fear of protest from the indigenous people. The narrator’s reason for shooting the elephant, “to avoid looking a fool”, highlights the insecurities and selfishness behind the acts of the colonial powers, where the narrator commits an act of violence simply to maintain his position as a “white man” who “mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives””.

 

Furthermore, I think that the story contradicts the essentialization of race by showing how people grow to fit racial stereotypes. For example, the narrator muses on how the moment a white man becomes a tyrant, he has to spend the rest of his life living up to that expectation of him, and thus grows to fit that stereotype of him. The natives too, seem to degenerate to crude behaviour towards the Europeans, such as in the Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing “to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” because they have been ill-treated by the colonial powers. The narrator shows this when he gives a very explicit illustration of the brutal ill-treatment the natives get, such as the “wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups” or the “scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos”. As the natives are treated like animals, so they act like animals towards the Europeans. Hence, I feel that “Shooting an Elephant” destabilizes the essentializing of race and the justification of the exclusion of natives from spaces of power as raised in Chatterjee’s article.

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