Shooting An Elephant Essay Thesis

Essays present theses. Narrative essays--describing a personal experience or a personally witnessed event--contain theses; they have a purpose and make a point. The thesis in Orwell's narrative essay "Shooting an Elephant" is complex and goes far beyond being a statement of anti-imperialism or a statement of violently ambiguous personal emotions. Orwell's thesis can be paraphrased as stating that imperialism tears apart and out the heart and soul of both peoples--the oppressors' heart and soul and the oppressed's--and is well encapsulated in the following long quotation that both ends his background introduction (necessary to establish time, place and mood) and leads into the heart of his narration: 

All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

First: Some say that narrative essays ought not to have an introduction. However, in a narrative essay like this one, framing the background to establish setting and mood is critical: the suspenseful and emotional impact of the conclusion (of the point) would be weaker--less gripping--without the orientation to how, where, when and why. 

Second: In the quotation above, Orwell (born Eric A. Blair in Mohitari, India, in 1903 to British civil servants) uses a Latin phrase common in religious choral music: in saecula saeculorum, which is a Latin colloquialism (idiomatic expression) that gives the sense of "unto ages of ages." Orwell uses this religious expression to show that, with part of his mind (with "one part of my mind"), he views British imperialism as immutable, as everlasting, as something existing "unto ages of ages," ironically while not even knowing "that the British Empire [was] dying."

Third: The feelings Orwell means in "[f]eelings like these" are all the sets of feelings he is torn by. One feeling is that he hates the empire he serves. Another feeling is that the British Empire is tantamount to a holy thing (as suggested by the religious allusion to in saecula saeculorum) without beginning or end, lasting "unto ages of ages." Imagine the inner conflict from hating that which is felt to be immutable.

Another feeling is that he favors the Burmese impulse toward daily protest of "anti-European feeling" against British occupation: "Theoretically — and secretly, of course — I was all for the Burmese." Another feeling is that he bitterly hates his job in the British police: "I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear." His feeling here is paralleled to the Burmese hatred of the British: "anti-European feeling was very bitter," especially for the "young Buddhist priests [who] were the worst of all."

There was also his feeling of isolation and perplexity. Being young, inexperienced and "ill-educated" (only partially true since he attended the super-elite Eton, although he didn't attend university afterward), he had no one with whom to discuss these feelings and issues, since he and all other British police were restrained behind a veil of silence: "I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East." This silence fueled and agitated his feeling of "rage" against the (understandably) antagonistic Burmese: "my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible."

With his national loyalty severely strained by all his feelings and by the conflict born of the antagonistic relationship between his incompatible feelings, Orwell finds that the incident with the elephant is symbolic and an apt metaphor for the effects of imperialism on sons and daughters of the oppressors as well as on the peoples overwhelmed by oppression. Conflicts, antagonism, contradictions, hatreds and animosities grow, flourish and abound in shocking expression in both oppressor and oppressed under the "British Raj," the empire builder. If we comprehend the total in-built self-destruction of imperialism after reading Orwell's feelings and experience, then we have understood his thesis that imperialism forces people into hatred and hatefulness, into dehumanizing actions and reactions, into a condition of antagonism and perplexity with heart and soul torn apart and out.

Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more....

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