The Reluctant Imperialist?

What struck me in my reading of short story was the reluctance of the narrator in carrying out his role as the white imperialist. He waffles between being “theoretically […] for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” and being a stoic white imperialist, one that the natives will never laugh at. In fact, the narrator even pokes fun at what he calls the “real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act”, revealing the artificiality and hypocrisy of imperialism. However, the issue I have is that ultimately, the narrator is still shown to carry out his duties as an imperialist. For all his comments about the pretence of imperialism, he still aligns himself with white imperialism, one that is entrenched in capitalism—the dilemma of whether to capture the elephant alive, so that it would be worth “at least a hundred pounds”, or to just kill it and get five pounds for its tusks—and self-justified by Christian principles—the reference to the “crucified” Indian. Furthermore, the narrator invokes the law and the military—institutions that function to maintain imperial rule—in justifying his actions. The fact that the coolie was killed placed him “legally in the right” to kill the elephant while the possession of the rifle clearly indicated his military might. Hence, for all his reluctance, the narrator still performs the role of the white imperialist, and if we consider how this notion of performance and the theatrical is played out via references to being the “lead actor”, “an absurd puppet”, etc, then perhaps we wonder: Is the reluctance of the narrator ultimately also a performance?

“But at that moment…”

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.

Stein’s butterflies and the dream

How the romanticized myth of imperialism fuels the ambitions and dreams of despotic or hopeful men may be read as one indictment of the novel. The symbolism of Stein’s butterflies foretells men’s desire to grasp hold of every minute microcosm that constitutes the universe – to label, to showcase, to proclaim something as one’s own; as if the dream is the singular obsession which gives meaning to a person’s life. The ambition /quest to possess on colonist terms is subtly hinted at when Conrad suggests that ‘Stein never failed to annex on his own account every butterfly or beetle he could lay his hands on’.

Conrad attacks the romanticized idea of the dream as a distant ideal which can never be attained, as Stein laments ‘And do you know how many opportunities I let escape; how many dreams I had lost that had come in my way?’ By the end, it is telling how Stein is himself world-wearied, and “says often that he is ‘preparing to leave all this… ‘while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies”.

The chief overreacher in the novel, Lord Jim, is also self-conscious of the one failure that haunts him like a dodging shadow to his life, in spite of his successful venture in Patusan. He is constantly aware that his existence is uncared for and unwanted by the larger world that has casted him away, in Marlowe’s words, as ‘not good enough’.    Jim’s romantic quest to be worshipped as a hero and as a successful adventurer inevitably rings hollow in his failure to acknowledge the reality of human errors and imperfections.

Treatment of the Marabar Caves in Forster

Forster provides us with amazing descriptions of landscape in his novel. India is seen through various representations- the Himalayas, the Ganges, Chandrapore, holy spaces, and the Marabar caves. Yet, there is undeniable ambivalence when it comes to his depiction of the Marabar caves. For example, Forster calls ‘the visitor’ of the caves ‘uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all’ (116), and while this might echo his own ambivalence towards India (or more specifically, British imperialist attitudes in India), it suggests that the caves are so overwhelming that it numbs and confuses the senses. Visitors simply will not be able to decide how they feel about the caves (perhaps as a holy space). The Marabar caves as a suggestion of elusiveness and mystery is an important motif in the novel- we are unclear about whether Adela’s experience is an ‘illusion’, reality, or simple misunderstanding. The caves are also a place of uncertainty, as even Aziz admits that he will never find the same place within the caves again; despite the fact that he is their official “guide”, he is also not spared by the ability of the caves to confuse and trick.


Forster links the cave to a ‘holy place’, as does Aziz, thereby accepting the mystery that surrounds it, but Adela and Ronny both express a need to put ideas and events into neat categories. Adela laments that ‘good, happy, small people. They do not exist, they were a dream’ (193), and Ronny expresses his frustration with the fact that the caves are ‘notoriously like one another’. Also, his suggestion that ‘in the future they were to be numbered in sequence with white paint’ (188) suggests that he possesses a strong desire to simplify what he cannot understand/identify, resulting in a loss of meaning.


The source and existence of the echo that Adela hears in the cave is also never resolved for us. Moran suggests that it is a reminder of the evil she has done (both towards violating the cave, and for falsely accusing Aziz). I think that the ambivalent space of the caves, along with the suggestion of violence (and perhaps crime?) wrecked against India by the British, is very effective as a motif in the novel.