The Elephant as the Burmese Moby-Dick

October 7, 2009 by ritchellchoong · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

I really liked reading “Shooting an Elephant” (not because it’s short) but because I thought that for once, there is a story that is not completely swept over and obsessed with the colonist-colonised dichotomy. While I agree that it is still a trope to be considered in the story, I think what I really enjoyed about reading this is the way it portrayed fears of embarrassment, personal dilemmas as something more human than anything else. The biggest thing that was staring back at me, especially in the beginning, is the way the elephant reminded me of Moby-Dick, because it isn’t until the end that we finally get to meet the creature and up to the point when we do meet it, all that we understand of it is constructed by the stories heard about it or told about it. In the same sense, the way that the Narrator is chasing after the elephant, hunting it down and being haunted by the ways that the elephant eludes him, made me think that on some level the narrator is a fusion of both Ahab and Ishmael.

This parallel is useful to me because I feel that the elephant is more important in bringing out the character’s individual failures and flaws, than being a creature itself; the same way Moby dick is more important as a canvas for Ahab and Ishmael’s personal nightmares to be played out than as a deadly whale itself. The reason I say this is because we never do see the elephant thrashing about or destroying anything the way that we have been told it does. Instead, we see it grazing in the distance. So there is a sense that when the narrator convinces himself that he should kill the elephant because the elephant could potentially be dangerous, we find it a difficult argument to accept because his reasons are purely hypothetical and possibly even imagined at worst.

Yes, one may argue that the villagers have witnessed and have told stories of the elephant’s horrific doings but the way the story is framed – i.e. the elephant we see is harmless instead of thrashing about, and that even the narrator suspects the villagers’ accounts (“Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have hear of any elephant. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies.”) suggests that perhaps the reason for shooting the elephant is not really because the elephant is posing a very plausible danger, rather it is because of the character’s own inner inability to own up to his own uncertainty and to admit to his mistaken decisions.

Also, on a side note I think it’s interesting how after the narrator kills the elephant, the natives actually “stripped thehis body almost to the bones”. In a sense, I think what this reveals is that perhaps it is the colonist’s self-aggrandizing acts (and of course, the introduction of capitalist desires/pursuits) that actually brings out the savagery and the worst in the natives, because the way that the colonist ritualises his actions and “justifies” any wrong act by virtue of his racial superiority ultimately only permits the natives to be even more savage and hungry for loot.

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