Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10) 2nd Half of Class


To recap, in the first half of class, Prof Koh showed us Michael Kimmel’s video which was centered around the premises that privilege is invisible to those who have it. Prof Koh opens the second half of class by showing us W.H Auden’s “Spain 1937” about the Spanish Civil War that the modernists were involved in and proving that only someone who did not own a gun could write something like that, supporting Kimmel’s statement that privilege is invisible to those who have it. In the second half of class, we discuss this invisibility of privilege, Stoler, power and feminism with regards to Burmese Days and Jessica’s blog entry.

1. Bringing masculine power to the female.

Stoler constructs binaries of how women are supposed to be revealed. No matter how women are portrayed, they are always subject to the male subjugation of power. Jessica sees the actions of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May as bringing masculine power back to the female, therefore empowering them. One notable instance in the novel where we see Elizabeth getting close to power is the hunting scene. Elizabeth welds power when she holds the gun, a symbol of masculine power, and ‘masters’  it when she almost scores a kill with her first shot, thereby utilizing the masculine power for her own purposes.

2. Women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it. Therefore, they can never escape the patriarchal hegemony and attain true power.

Peiyi agrees to a certain extent, she thinks that Elizabeth got exactly what she wanted as she ended up in a more advantageous and powerful position- but she is still subjugated by the masculine ideologies. Her role as a memsahib is only valid within the masculine colonial discourse. However, Yuying points out that Elizabeth does not care, which reinforces Stoler’s discourse that women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it.

3. Women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle.

This also reinforces Stoler’s reading, where she states that women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle through the institution of marriage. Hence, the colonial directory regulates women’s roles and functions. Elizabeth does not possess the reflexivity or empowerment to rise above the situation- she just reinforces what has been programmed in her. In a own way, she is  also a victim. She has already transgressed the space between the country of her birth in order to create another space for her to construct a new whole identity (through marriage), but this identity only reinforces the colonial ideals of power.

4. Are the strongest opponents to feminism women themselves?

Michael Kimmel’s “privilege is invisible to those who have it” is brought into play here. The female (Elizabeth) is able to make the patriarchal system work for her through the institution of marriage, therefore giving the female some sort of power. However, this female empowerment is not universal. In comparison, Ma Hla May has more constraints due to her status as a native concubine. However, Elizabeth does not care about the plight of Ma Hla May. Indeed, Ma Hla May is her competitor. There is no universal bond of sisterhood that ties them together. As such, once Elizabeth attains the masculine power that she wants, she further subjugates and oppresses Ma Hla May and the natives. Hence, feminism is privileged, and women are the strongest opponents to feminism themselves.

5. The connotations of feminism

Prof Koh asks the class how many of us actually consider ourselves feminists, and only three people raise their hands. Kelvin says that the term feminist has a negative connotation. The notion of feminism brings to mind the radical bra-burning and man-hating feminists of the past, which are undesirable in today’s context, where womens’ rights are already pretty much established. Mr Cheng points out that it is because of this radical actions that women suffrage is pioneered today. Perhaps because we are speaking from a privileged position in the twenty-first century, we are unable to comprehend or relate to the pioneer suffragettes. In that sense, as Prof Koh says, we are complacent because we feel the battle has already been won.

6. The role of marriage in society: the social contract vs the sexual contract

The function of marriage has popped up several times in the discussion. Stoler specifically talks about marriage and how this was important in the construction of a colonial society. Elizabeth sees marriage as protection and a means to attain power. Ma Hla May does not have access to marriage with Flory due to her status as a native. However, she does have value in her use of sex and her pseudo-spousal role as a colonial concubine. Here, Prof Koh introduces the ideology of Carol Pateman to us, who argues that the social contract is first bounded upon the sexual contract. The social contract is opposed to patriarchy and patriarchal right, but before one can be a father he needs to have sex first. Therefore the social contract is not founded upon patriarchy, but marriage- hence the sexual contract.


Perhaps the idea that struck me the most this week was Stoler’s argument that the construction of femininity is only valid within the patriarchal circle which is upheld by the sexual contract. This relates to Jing Xuan and Frederick’s presentation the previous week regarding power and Foucault, where power exists only when it is put into action. Feminine power can only exist within the context of masculine power, and can be only exercised when masculine power is exerted. Therefore it is not that the female is unable to break free from the male hegemony, but that feminism requires the presence of male oppression in order to exist. Without gender inequality, there would be no feminism or patriarchy to talk about in the first place. The sexual contract also reveals that one avenue of power available to women is sex, with or without the sanctity of marriage. However, sex and rape share a fine line, as Frederick mentioned in his presentation.

To conclude, Prof Koh brings up the example of the Law of Coverture in Singapore. If a man rapes his legal wife in Singapore, he is able to get away with it as under Singapore law, every woman is essentially male property and her legal rights are covered by the men. It is disturbing to note that the battle for equal female rights is still ongoing today. However, as Ambreen suggests, rather that just talking about gender inequality, we should take off the masks of privilege and concern ourselves with inequality in general.

Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10): Overall Summary

Topic of class + examples

The main focus of the class was on the crisis of gender in modernism; how gender issues created disorder in colonial times, especially with the importation of Englishwomen into the colonial outpost.

–         “Privilege is invisible to those who have it”

The short clip of Michael Kimmel’s lecture on gender studies screen at the beginning of the class was interesting the conceptualization of gender as an analytical framework to be understood in relation to other aspects – race, class, etc. Therefore, gender as a social construct has to be self-conceptualized by the individual. Because of the relativism in the definition of these terms, gender is subjected to the constant state of flux. Nevertheless, society still holds on to notions on how gender is performed; not only women but men too are suppressed by gender expectations.

–         Identity politics: a reflection of men’s desire for order

Performativity may be unnatural, but is not escapable and both men and women inscribe certain gender expectations and qualities in the process of normalization. Patriarchy constitutes not solely male-domination, but broadly societal domination, and in it was raised in the discussion that it is only when things are deemed ‘normal’ that the domineering hegemony can continue to assert its power. In Burmese Days, Orwell employs stock characters in the framework of satire to aid in our reading of gender. An issue raised was the portrayal of Flory as a problematic hero who struggles with his masculine identity, amongst other things. His feminine bond with nature is juxtaposed with his role as a timbre merchant which is suggestive of destruction, and perhaps masculinity. Presented as a double of Flory, virile Verrall is effeminate, but immune to punishment and like Flory he possess emotional stereotypes of women that hinders both their ability to form meaningful heterosexual relationships. Their maintenance of bachelorhood could therefore be as defense against heterosexuality: the ironic performance of masculinity to defend against it.

The replication of gender orders in raising barriers of inclusivity and exclusivity

In this week’s article, “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power”, Ann Stoler illustrates this point in outlining the role of women in reinforcing masculinity. More specifically, she posits that white women are complicit with colonialism and the gender of imperialism in the context of colonial expansionism. In the modernist texts of colonial expansion, gender is employed as an analytical framework in conjunction with other axis of representations, and we see in the texts how women are manipulated in many ways in portrayal of how certain figures are more representative of colonial power. In Passage to India and Burmese Days, for example, the English country club is portrayed as a miniature of British society, a site in which the ruling order sets up the politics of exclusion and inclusion. In this sphere, race is of the first level of exclusivity, followed by gender, making the white women second class members with no activities that are exclusive to them. The club functions as a means of keeping women nearby and out of clutches of native men, but still separate from the white men. Their role is therefore a reinforcement of colonial order and Elizabeth’s entry into Flory’s world forces him to rethink his position and reinforce his masculinity. In this social hierarchy, the power is the white women as agents of the empire is curtailed by their gendered ‘otherness’ and here it was raised the question: why do people say that the biggest opponents to feminism are women themselves?

–         White women as legalized entity vs. the native women as sexualized commodity

In the first half of the class the presenters brought up this interesting binary classification in aid of our understanding of the positions of the white and native women in the social hierarchy of colonial rule. A comparison of the two central female characters of Burmese Days reveal that Ma Hla May has more constrains set upon her than Elizabeth. Not all women are unilaterally opposed to feminism as privileged women are able to negotiate within the existing system, and one of the channels that enable them to do so is through the economy of white heterosexual marriage.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Evident in Burmese Days and Passage to India, romance escapes white heterosexual unions between men and women or is overshadowed by the economy of marriage. Marriage is important for women in the society for without which, they are non-entities in society without marriage. Marriage is for Elizabeth the only means of escaping poverty, spinsterhood and the unwelcome advances of her perpetually inebriated uncle. While marriage to Flory is not an option for Ma Hla May, who can only exist as a sexualized commodity, the only reason she wants Flory to take her back is because she wants to live the life of a white man’s mistress again.

A self-proclaimed fanatic of Candace Bushnell’s ‘Sex and the City’, I found interesting the notion raised that women are more entrapped ideologically than before with the illusion of freedom. Agreeably, the ‘single and fabulous’ women of the sitcom might even come across as feministic in their seemingly independent lifestyles in the absence of men, but each failed relationship seems to undermine their assertion of freedom and confirm that their status as women continues to not be legitimized until they enter matrimonial union with an idealized Mr. Right. Similarly, despite all the freedom Elizabeth and even Adele wish to assume in having a choice in their potential husbands breaking off engagements, they never do escape their existence as legalized entities whose legitimate status can only be affirmed, and even then to a varying degree, in colonial order through the economy of marriage.

The Fantasy of the Oriental Woman Dispelled

Ann Stoler writes in “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” that “Colonial observers and participants in the imperial enterprise appear to have had unlimited interest in the sexual interface of the colonial encounter”, and that “The tropics provided a site for European pornographic fantasies” (43). The Orient has always been sexed and sexualized as a woman, perhaps most memorably in the harems of One Thousand and One Nights. Stoler points out that the “sexual submission and possession of Oriental women by European men” easily become “graphic representations of colonial dominance” (44). She cites Edward Said, who described Orientalism as both a “male perception of the world” and a “male power fantasy” (44). This corresponds directly and obviously with the male sexual gaze of Oriental women. What Stoler insists, however, is that this sexual domination is of more symbolic than pragmatic significance.

In Chapter Four of Burmese Days, George Orwell introduces Ma Hla May, the native mistress of the European protagonist James Flory. The entire scene of sexual intercourse together with the attendant shame which Flory experiences strongly suggests the link between sexual and imperial domination. First of all, I disagree with Stoler, and find that the sexual domination of Oriental women is far from merely symbolic. It is a harsh reality with tangible consequences, and is often a facet or an extension of the injustices of imperialism. What I would like to draw attention to, however, is Orwell’s portrayal of the Oriental woman in Ma Hla May. On the surface it is a stereotypical depiction, yet it also bears interesting departures from the usual object of male European fantasy.

There is a heavy sense of disillusionment which overhangs Burmese Days. Part of this disillusionment is with the Oriental woman, the fantasy of which is dispelled. Ma Hla May is physically described as “an outlandish doll, and yet a grotesquely beautiful one” (52). While she is attributed with physical beauty, it is more of a vague and theoretical kind of beauty. There is greater emphasis on the grotesquery of her appearance, as well as the lack of femininity in her “contourless” (52) frame, at least from the European point-of-view. As with the natural landscape of Burma, Orwell sets up a contrast between the expectation of fantasy against experience of reality. Ma Hla May hardly seems attractive to Flory. She seems to bring remorse and vexation more than she does pleasure or satisfaction. Her strongest distinguishing characteristic is her covetousness, her voice is “high-pitched” (52), and the “scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil” (52) which follows her is not a pleasant fragrance, but a lingering pungence which Flory is unable to rid himself of. In the scene of shame, after having had sex with Ma Hla May, Flory “buried his face disgustedly in the pillow, which was damp and smelt of coco-nut oil” (54).

The politics of prostitution

Orwell does not seem to like women very much. In Burmese Days he inadvertantly makes the claim that all women, both colonial and colonizer class, are the same, and that women have to prostitute themselves in order to attain some worth in the eyes of the male colonizer, where prostitution involves the act of selling oneself to the male colonizer, physically or otherwise.

The white woman constantly needs to assert herself in looking for a white colonizer class husband, especially while overseas. Elizabeth embodies this in her quest to marry a man who can to make her a burra memasahib. While she seems flighty and rather shallow for jumping from white man to white man, she is merely doing what women of her race are expected to do in order to keep their self worth.

For the native woman, she is told from birth that to be a concubine of a white man is far better off than anything else she could become. The male colonizers are even encouraged to keep  or even marry native women, as they are less expensive to maintain than a female member of the colonizing country. Ma Hla May can hardly be blamed for trying to win back Flory from Elizabeth, as it has been impressed upon her all her life that to service a white colonizer accords her a status that makes her life worth living.

This implies that the one of the only forms of power that women have over men has to do with sexuality and sex. It also means that a woman’s worth is measured by whether or not she has managed to attract a male from the colonizer class. As a result, women have to prostitute themselves if they wish to attain some sort of power in a world ruled by white males.

The impartiality of the law

As I was reading Orwell’s Burmese Days, the unequal treatment of the law struck a chord within me. This brought to mind the image of Lady Justice with her blindfolds that symbolize the impartiality of the law. In Orwell’s Burma, Lady Justice is blind to the faults of the whites and intolerant with the natives (of course, Lady Justice is herself European…) So of course, Maxwell’s shooting of a native is justified but the killing of Maxwell by the native’s relatives is not. His death angers the European community simply because the life of a white man is of greater value than that of a native: “Eight hundred people, possibly are murdered every year in Burma; they matter nothing; but the murder of a white man is a monstrosity, a sacrilege” (Orwell, p. 248). The whites are then anxious to ensure that the culprits are punished by the law for Maxwell’s death. Where is the morality in that then? After all, Maxwell did commit murder as well. This reminded me of Stoler’s article on ‘Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power’ where she says that “sexual abuse of black women was not classified as rape and therefore was not legally actionable, nor did rapes committed by white men lead to prosecution (Stoker, p.58). Crimes committed by the white man to the natives are not punishable by the law and the perpetrators go away scot-free by virtue of their race and gender. This is further reinforced by the incident where Ellis blinds a Burmese and angers the villagers. The natives understand that there can be no impartiality for them in the eyes of the law: “We know that there is not justice for us in your courts, so we must punish Ellit ourselves” (Orwell, p.257). In the colonies, the law protects those in power and discriminates against the natives. How then can the natives win? Isn’t colonization supposed to be beneficial for the colonies? Despite the civilizing mission and the claims that the empire brings beneficial influences to the colony, the injustices of the empire are illuminated in Burmese Days.

Flory’s birthmark

It was put forth that Flory would have been the man Orwell would have become if he had chosen to stay on in Burma. Flory, very much modeled after the figure of Forster’s Fielding but undoubtedly a shadow of Orwell himself; is not afraid to joke with his close doctor confidante that ‘the British Empire was an aged female patient of the doctor’s’, speak surreptitiously about the true nature of imperialism in various analogies, as the ‘official holds the Burman down while the business man goes through his pockets’, and half-detest and admire his fellow Europeans for not possessing the same clairvoyance as he does, yet Flory is much too cowardly and incapable of standing up for his native doctor friend to arrest the self-pitying situation which he is contend to thrive in.

The same Flory is similarly capable of exploiting his own patriarchal position vis-à-vis Empire against native women, keeping mistresses for his own lust and pleasure and dismissing them guiltily when he is done with them (Orwell’s ambiguous attitude towards the exploitation of women arises in part from his own experiences). From Flory’s long ranting monologue, the reader gains an insight to the multiple plagues of his life – the ills of alien empire depriving the colonist from the capacity to think and articulate his thoughts, to the dire performativity of the self as dictated by the ‘pukka sahib’s code’, his tacit admission that his roots had grown too deep into Burmese soil, his love-hate relationship with Burma, Empire, and himself, it is not hard to see why Flory is finally driven to suicide. The blue birthmark on Flory’s side of the face, the part of himself which he constantly seeks to suppress in silence and bitterness, surfacing time and again in the novel as a fragmentary reminder that he really  is no different from the others, simply will not go away.

Women as perpetrators of colonialism

Colonialism has been a much debated topic and for many, the focus has always been centered on how it functioned as a tool of not only European superiority but also, a tool for substaining the European patriarchal society. There were instances in the novel which seemed to uphold patriarchal beliefs such as when it was mentioned in the novel that “the women members of the club had no votes.” This corresponded to  our common belief of male domination and the helplessness of the women who were completely dependent on men for their survivor. Yet, after reading the novel, I felt that it made us looked at the position of  the European women in a different light.

The women in the novel seemed to enforce a system of colonialism of their own. This “system of colonialism” was evident in the way the European women entertained certain beliefs and how they sought to impress them onto the behaviour of the white men around them or in the way they judged the natives. Elizabeth exemplified this in the way she chose to uphold her beliefs about the “white man.”  This can be seen in “she was perfectly certain that that was not how white men ought to behave” and “she was grasping, dimly, that his views were not the views an Englishman should hold.” She also perpetuated this system of colonialism in the way she viewed marriage for it was said in the ending of the book that “her servants live in terror of her, although she speaks no Burmese” and “she fills with complete success the position for which Nature had designed her from the first, that of a burra memsahib.” To me, Elizabeth’s “colonialising” of her servants served as an re-enactment of the colonialism enforced by the European men. Here, it is suggested that the “white woman” functioned as a mirror for the “white man.”    

Contrary to the image of a “strong” woman created for the readers through her hunting trip with Flory, in her desperate attempts to find a husband in Flory and Verell respectively, Elizabeth perpetuated the stereotypical image of women who were completely dependent upon marriage  for their livelihood. This hence contributes to the idea that as much as men relied on colonialism to maintain a sort of pride, women also embraced colonialism to maintain order in their lives. As much as the fact that there were changes being affected, the colonial women were unwilling to adapt to the outcomes which these changes might bring and therefore, perhaps strove to uphold colonialism more than the men did. The novel hence, I felt, brought out another truth which we might have neglected with the knowledge which we were being equipped with to look at colonialism. It made us look at the cupability of women which not many of us would have regarded given the fact that the European women were always portrayed as victims in one way or another.

Of course, the flux in the impressions which readers get of Elizabeth in the novel also points out the flux of language.  The complexity of women as both victims and perpetrators shows that perhaps, there are more “truths” to be discovered and this is only possible through the use of language by other writers such as the Anglo- Indian other than the European himself.

Writing Orwell: Falling into Modern English

I read an essay by Orwell in high school that had a profound impact on the way I view the English language. Written about a decade after “Shooting an Elephant,” “Politics and the English Language” is Orwell’s tirade of sorts against “modern english”: a new stage of the language that, to him, was ruining it. He argues that “the tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Citing overused metaphor, pretentious diction and meaningless words and phrases as things that have redirected modern prose, it’s interesting to note that he uses all of them in “Shooting an Elephant.”

Although he does slip in some Latin – in saecula saeculorum, in terrorem – and utilize extremely common descriptions of the Burmese, especially in the opening paragraphs, Orwell’s writing and his later critique on modern prose seem to highlight the crisis of knowledge that stems from Orwell’s situation in Burma. He is on the side of the Burmese in as much as he hates the colonial oppression, and yet he is very firmly one of these oppressors in how the Burmese react to him and his consequent dislike of them. In other words, having concrete prose would detract from this feeling of internal conflict: how clear can one’s conscience be as an ambivalent colonial authority?

In characterizing, Orwell’s “modern English” goes great lengths to highlight the Modernist problem of knowledge, foregoing clarity of prose to emphasize the lack of clarity in the mind.

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.

Peer Pressure.

The narrator refers to the shooting of the elephant as “enlightening: it was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act”. He admitted that he had shot the elephant “solely to avoid looking a fool”. What struck me when I read Shooting an Elephant was how brutally honest the text was. Here was a member of the imperialists who did not believe in the imperialist ideals that he was fed, but was yet propelled to carry out the actions of the imperialist masters because of pressure from not only the imperial masters, but from the colonized natives as well. I had never thought that there were imperialist masters who would feel the pressure from their subjects, and actually try to fulfill their expectations. I had always imagined them to be like Lord Jim, who would protect their self interests above all else. To be fair though, I am lumping all the imperial masters into a faceless mass, and shooting an elephant to appease the natives is not the same as abandoning a ship full of natives as the narrator’s life is not endangered.

When the imperialist masters gradually lose faith in their ideals, I suppose the only things keeping them to the land are pride, as can been seen from Shooting an Elephant, and economic resources.

On The Flip-Side: Colonist the Subaltern in “Shooting An Elephant”

I found reading “Shooting An Elephant” particularly refreshing in contrast with the rather intense, in-your-face kind of texts we’ve been dealing with in the past few weeks. Perhaps it was the darkness of Conrad’s fiction or the heavy-handedness of A Passage to India, but Orwell’s short story managed to encapsulate and tie together some key ideas about colonialism that have been bouncing around in my head over the last half of the sem.

One thing that struck me was the unspoken power of passive aggression against colonialism, embodied in the “petty” way in which the Burmese responded to the Europeans. The narrator makes it clear that these efforts are mere pinpricks, at least initially, but they do have an extraordinary effect of making him feel “imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner [he] chucked up [his] job and got out of it the better”. Often we preoccupy ourselves with a patronising sense of pity for the subaltern, the one whose voice is perpetually silenced. But the subaltern is not silent, he is active in his own way.

In fact, what was most fascinating about the story was the narrator’s epiphany of an alternative side of reality nearing the end of the story: the white man is in his own way, trapped, and perhaps, one might venture to suggest, silenced too. I could not help chuckling to myself reading about how he realises he was “only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind… when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys…”

Perhaps this is the most disconcerting truth about colonialism is not what it does to the “natives”, but the unperceived, certainly unexpected effect it has on the colonist. Something worth musing over, certainly.

Colonialism and perspectives

I would like to discuss the notion of perspectives in Shooting an Elephant because that seems to jump out when I was reading the short story and by extension, I would like to posit that colonialism was all about perspectives and that the reason why it could sustain itself was due to manipulation of perspectives. In the short story, the narrator draws the reader’s attention to the native’s perspective of the white colonizer, in that while the natives hated the colonizers, they feared them so much so they did not have the “guts to raise a riot”. Similarly, because of the native’s views on the colonizer, the narrator felt that he should uphold the stereotype of the white tyrant for fear of being laughed at. Thus, here the perspective that one has of the other shapes the colonial relationship between colonized and the colonizer.

In Chatterjee’s article, she puts forth the notion that colonialism prevailed because it focused on the differences between the Western and Indian modes of thinking. It seems that if the colonizers had a different perspective of India, not as having a totally different and therefore inferior system, but instead as an alternative system with similar characteristics, the colonial enterprise would have been very different. Instead, by focusing on differences, it provided for justification of colonialism’s hard hand on India and the Indians. Moreover, she mentions that by establishing the fact that they were bringing modernity to India, the colonizers were able to manipulate the perspectives of the natives to view them as “saviors” to make India modern and thereby maintaining their rule over the natives.

The Elephant as the Burmese Moby-Dick

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.

General thoughts on ‘Shooting an Elephant’

Somehow, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ reminds me of Kuo Pao Kun’s ‘The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole’. Other than the fact that both texts circle around the notion of power, another reason could be the use of a first-person narrative written in a sparse yet personal (almost confessional) tone. While the first-person narrative allows us to delve deep into the psychology of the narrator/ protagonist, it could also obscure and be unreliable. It’s interesting, but also rather hilarious, that Orwell presents us with a neurotic narrator. Granted, the ‘natives’ might have hated him but we (as readers) will never know if they had, indeed, treated the dangerous event as ‘their bit of fun’ or if they were actually frightened. Silencing the subjugated is often seen as disempowering but here, the unnamed narrator endows their silence with a menacing quality. He keeps reminding us that he was being watched: ‘they were watching me as much as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick’. But one easily forgets that he watches them (watching him) as well!

The short story quite obviously points out that power relations in a colony are tenuous and meanings arbitrary, with the colonizer having to act out his role and his difference. Ultimately, no matter how guilty he is for being apart of this imperial project, the narrator reinscribes himself back into the system. I’m not quite sure, however, what the elephant symbolizes. We could easily read it as a symbol of the colonized natives (white elephants were prized by ancient burmese monarchies) but could we also see it as a manifestation of colonial anxiety? Just some thoughts!