Race and the Law in “Shooting an Elephant”

In his article, Partha Chatterjee looked at a certain opinion in Britain that felt that the colonized people, the Indians specifically, were immoral, irrational, ignorant and unfit for taking leadership in a government that is based on rationality. This idea was then used to justify not putting the natives in positions of power. 

 

In “Shooting an Elephant”, I think George Orwell upsets this justification. At the end of the story, the narrator points out that colonial power is enforced through bureaucratic and legal systems. The narrator was “legally” right to have shot the elephant because the law said it was the right thing to do. The owner could do nothing (presumably, he could not take legal action against the narrator) because the law does not value his rights as he “was only an Indian”. In other words, the story seems to highlight that the reason the colonial powers put the natives at a position of inferior power is so they can do as they like in the colonized land without fear of protest from the indigenous people. The narrator’s reason for shooting the elephant, “to avoid looking a fool”, highlights the insecurities and selfishness behind the acts of the colonial powers, where the narrator commits an act of violence simply to maintain his position as a “white man” who “mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives””.

 

Furthermore, I think that the story contradicts the essentialization of race by showing how people grow to fit racial stereotypes. For example, the narrator muses on how the moment a white man becomes a tyrant, he has to spend the rest of his life living up to that expectation of him, and thus grows to fit that stereotype of him. The natives too, seem to degenerate to crude behaviour towards the Europeans, such as in the Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing “to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” because they have been ill-treated by the colonial powers. The narrator shows this when he gives a very explicit illustration of the brutal ill-treatment the natives get, such as the “wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups” or the “scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos”. As the natives are treated like animals, so they act like animals towards the Europeans. Hence, I feel that “Shooting an Elephant” destabilizes the essentializing of race and the justification of the exclusion of natives from spaces of power as raised in Chatterjee’s article.

Binaries and the Breaking of Binaries in “Lord Jim”

Colonialism seems to tend to draw a binary between the good, moral white man and the evil, immoral native. The adventure tradition, upon which Lord Jim draws strongly, tends to espouse this view. Some of the stereotypes for example, include the righteous white hero, the “noble savage”, the evil, scheming native villain. In light of that, I think it is striking that there are a multiplicity of races and nationalities in Lord Jim. For example, there is the French Lieutenant, the British Jim, and the Australian trader among others (not to mention the natives in Patusan, the pilgrims on the Patna, the Malays on the Patna). On the surface, this seems to disrupt the binary presented by colonialism. After all, there is no longer a clear, distinct circle of “whites” and “natives”. Instead, the “whites” are fragmented into different nationalities, different individuals, with different ideas on morality, for example, while the “natives” are fragmented into the group ruled by Doramin, the group ruled by Sherif Ali and the group ruled of Tunku Allang.

 

However, I think this is problematic, as even as the binaries are broken up into multiple groups, certain stereotypes still remain. For example, the white men all express multiple views on issues such as morality and Jim’s actions, while the natives don’t seem to exhibit the same level of intellectual discourse. Doramin seems mainly concerned with establishing his son as ruler of his land through Jim’s help, while Tunku Allang seems only concerned with establishing his own power base. In fact, even though there are a variety of white men with different personalities, the natives seem to fall quite neatly into stereotypical images of the native, such as Tunku Allang, who seems to be the cowardly but violent native. In that sense, even as Conrad disrupts the stereotypes of the “white man”, he seems to reinforce the stereotype of the “native”.

The Existence of Savages and Stereotypes

After reading both Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s article, I feel that I can sympathy with the anguish that Achebe is experiencing. However, I feel that he might have misread the intentions of Conrad, as seen from Achebe’s naming of Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist”. As described in Achebe’s anecdote, he is obviously not pleased with the ‘under-recognition’ of African history and culture in America. But my main point is, how did that lead him to scrutinize and focus on deciphering Conrad’s short novel, one that was written 100 years ago?

Personally, I feel that it lies with Conrad’s strikingly vivid description of Africans or in Conrad’s words – “savages”. His almost larger than life portrayal of the Africans would reel readers (especially during Conrad’s time) in and convince them of the ‘reality’ of the description. I suppose this would probably be the stereotype that readers of Conrad’s time have in their mind. In other words, the stereotypes would be the very truth for the Western civilization, more than a hundred years ago. And I think it is this stereotype that Conrad is trying to play on, perhaps, somewhat out of control. It does illuminate the complicity of the English people – who are feeding on this stereotype and would therefore colour the imagination of those who sail to Africa in their ‘quests’, and this is illustrated by the ending quote of the novel: “The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed … into the heart of an immense darkness”.

Nonetheless, it still seems straightforward to Achebe that Conrad’s portrayal of Africans in such a negative light led to a continual impression that Africa is backward and remains outside the realm of knowledge even till his time. If not, why Heart of Darkness?