Shooting the white elephant: surveying the psyche of the white imperialist

In comparison to the previous texts, Shooting the Elephant seems to provide a more neutralizing perspective of the white imperialist. Orwell’s narrator claims a liminal position in identifying with neither the colonizer nor the natives and is cast in a sympathetic, almost victimized light – or is he? Orwell’s narrator clearly suffers from schizophrenia, a corresponding crisis of identity/ consciousness and a moral condition that signals logical disjoint. This is a resulting malaise of having to assume the role of the imperialist ruler but at the same time being subjected to the conditions of its rule. Though he claims to be ‘all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British’, I would like to posit that his expressed hatred for the empire is but an attempt at denying his complete internalization of the very conditions of the imperialist rule he criticizes.

From the onset it is apparent that the narrator is extremely self-conscious of the native’s gaze, always painfully aware of ‘the watchful yellow faces behind’ and the growing crowd that follows him. Logical disjoint has him believe that he ‘has got to do what the “natives” expect of him’ when in fact, it is what he expects the natives to expect of him. “A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; so, in general, he isn’t frightened”. Self-consciousness (rather ironically) escapes the narrative as a result of the displacement of the individual onto a collective consciousness of “every white man’s” as well as the dislocation of the internal from the external self as perceived by society. Thus Orwell’s narrator is not to be read as a ‘true’ (warning: can of worms) self-conscious, critical account of the colonizer but to be identified as being desensitized by the conditions of imperialist rule. An important point to note is the narrator’s evident loss of a moralizing center as a result of the loss of self-consciousness. He justifies his actions by circumstances (‘the people expected it of me and I had got to do it’) rather than rely on his own moral judgment. Relieved that the coolie had been killed as it put him legally in the right for shooting the elephant, law here becomes the governing principle in the absence of emotion and moral consciousness.