I was pretty glad to be reading “Shooting an Elephant” this week, perhaps due to the fact that the Orwell is easier to read without the frequent oscillation between narrative perspectives that is present in the other texts. However, while the text may seem relatively straight-forward and presented through a singular viewpoint, I found myself reading and re-reading most sentences, because of the rich layering of meanings in the text and the oscillation between the exterior world and the inner consciousness of the narrator (the establishment of the context of the memory frames the investigation of the inner consciousness of the narrator). I would like to posit that the representation of interiority – itself a modernist technique – in the essay highlights the complexities of the narrator’s consciousness and his dilemma in shooting the elephant.
The narrator reaches a moment of realization and exterior time gives way to interior time. The moment before he commits to the act of shooting the elephant is fleshed out and his dilemma between morality and duty is highlighted:
“And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of white man’s dominion in the East.” (Orwell)
At this point, the narrator realizes that the white man’s struggle with the native underlies the struggle between the sahib and the elephant. The power hierarchy between the white man and the native is sharply overturned: the narrator feels pressured by the native to perform what is expected of the white man and in doing so, sacrifices his individual autonomy. It is at this moment that he realizes that imperialism oppresses both the colonized and the colonizer. Therefore, the representation of the narrator’s inner state of mind reveals the ambivalence felt towards imperialism. However while the investigation of the inner psyche of the narrator highlights his own awareness of the irony of his situation, perhaps his realization is as futile as the empire: although he stands on the crossroad between autonomy and role-playing, he chooses the latter when he decides to shoot the elephant.