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.
The focus on the individual consciousness in Modernist texts marks a clear shift from the focus on the exterior social world of characters to the focus on interiority. The extract from To The Lighthouse in ‘The Brown Stocking’ focuses on the inner consiousness of characters rather than their external circumstances. In my opinion, while the novels that preceded the Modernist novels used the social world as a way of getting into the identity of characters, the Modernist novel uses external situations to frame the inner consciousness of characters. For example, we enter into Mrs. Ramsay’s head through the seemingly banal happenings taking place (i.e. The measuring of the stocking) and from there, we read about her preoccupations and thoughts. Therefore, we seem to inhabit the space of her mind, reading her thoughts and gaining a greater insight into her identity then if we were given physical and social descriptions of the character. In addition, the difficulty of getting through the Woolf’s writings is due largely in part to the shifts in focus in passages. For example, we are taken from the stockings to the charm of Lily’s eyes, to Jame’s fidgeting, to the furniture etc. However, this shifts in inner focus reflects the workings of the mind. We are never completely focused on an issue for an extended period of time and we are led on to dwell upon an idea from the preceeding idea. Therefore I feel that Modernism’s focus on consciousness does well to better reflect reality and its focus on interiority proves to be more real than if it preoccupied with the social world of characters.
Personally, I think people tend to enjoy residing in their comfort zone, allowing many things around them to go unquestioned. Hence, allowing those with power to take on a paternal-like role in deciding how life is to be led as they represented objectivity and the truth. This is where, I believe, the role and purpose of Modernism – as a movement, serves. That is, to challenge and, if I may put it, to ‘mess around’ with the ‘normal’ perception of how things are and should be.
To put it simply, I think Modernism definitely comes across as confusing and unfathomable to some, with its seemingly incongruous form – forms that illustrates that our thought process is actually illogical and inconsistent in reality whilst our consciousness – arbitrary. This, as Auerbach has discussed, demonstrates how individuals would assign meanings to their surrounding based on their experiences. In other words, a hundred individuals will likely assign a hundred different meanings to a single entity. I feel that this recognition is a salient trait that drives the movement of Modernism, making it distinctive. Paradoxically, the driving force of Modernism is also its bane, as it faces the irreconcilable issue of representing truth and reality. Given that we are all unique in our experiences and thinking, what then is reality and truth?