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A Theme of Imperialism in Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell, and The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling

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“A situation in which one country has a lot of power or influence over others, especially in political and economic matters. ” This is how the Cambridge dictionary defines the term imperialism. A closely related term to imperialism is “colonialism”, which is described as “the belief in and support for the system of one country controlling another. ” These are terminologies that are frequently used to describe the situation of the British Empire, where Great Britain had colonized a quarter of the world. The already established civilizations that were colonized were forced to acclimate and adjust to the western lifestyle, which led to tension between the natives and the colonists. The literary works “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell, and “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling both express the burden of imperialism and the strain of Europeans forcing their ideals upon indigenous peoples, which they do by means of literary devices and language features including imagery and various symbols.

“The White Man’s Burden” is a poem written by Rudyard Kipling, and published in 1899, also subtitled “The United States and the Philippines” – and his message is to America to take over Spain from the rule of the Philippine Islands. The poem is encouraging people to take up the so-called white man’s burden, which the poem describes as sending the best men you have out of the country and your sons into exile to serve your captives, for these “newly-discovered” people are mad, uninhabited, and both immature and devilish. There are seven stanzas in Kipling’s poem, and each one starts with “Take up the White Man’s burden”, and then the rest of the verse is telling what that burden consists of. The poem is full of cultural imperialism, with the superior Englishmen into a place of “sullen” brutes and imposing their civilizing behaviors and institutions. Racism comes across in “The White Man’s Burden” in a quite apparent way. We can read in the first stanza that the Indians, or “captive peoples” are “sullen peoples”, described as “Half-child and half-devil”. They are being shown the “good ways” but act offended and unappreciative toward the people who want to better them. Naturally, this approach is logical to us nowadays – because it makes no sense that native peoples would eagerly embrace the vicious, demeaning imperialist ways of another nation? – although Kipling appears to be curious as to why these people were not grateful and thanking their “enlightening” conquerors.

George Orwell wrote “Shooting an elephant” in 1936 about a conflicted period of his life while he was working as a policeman in colonial Burma, serving the British Empire. This particular novel examines an internal war Orwell feels in his role as an officer for the British Empire and staying truthful to the law. The narrator receives a telephone, and it is telling him about an elephant ravaging the bazaar. He brings his hunting rifle and gets down where the animal allegedly lurks. After a fatality is reported, the narrator orders an elephant rifle and locates the now-calm animal. At first, he has no intention of killing the elephant, and he feels it is wrongdoing killing such a beautiful animal. Then he sees the massive crowd of Burmese people surrounding him and is experiencing a dilemma. The crowd wants is awaiting a spectacle and expect him to maintain the demonstration of power he is meant to as a British officer. The novel ends with him defying his moral compass and shooting the elephant. He shoots his rifle a couple of times before the elephant falls to the ground. The elephant was still alive, but instead of ending its suffering, he leaves it, and later learns that it took half an hour before it was dead.

Orwell writes throughout the novel, about how imperialism effects not only the oppressed, but also the oppressors. In the novel, he states that “The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at. ” This is how the narrator is thinking when he is going back and forth in his head whether to kill the elephant or not. We can interpret from this excerpt, how there is a difference in the imperialist belief and the actuality of how living in the East is for English people. According to imperialist ideology, the colonizers are doing the Burmese a favor as the intent is to alter their way of life socially and culturally, making them adhere to the standards set by the British. Although this is not what goes on in reality, or at least not in this example in Burma. It becomes evident in this novel that the cultural norms and rules still are in Burmese control, and it seems as if the narrator understands this collective relation, as he is fearful of embarrassment in front the Burmese people. If it was the other way around, having imperial rhetoric applicable, the narrator would not hesitate and concern himself with the opinions of the crowd.

The narrator is a symbol for the people he holds authority over, as a colonial policeman: He is an image for the citizens of an arbitrary and foreign rule and the object of their resentment and hatred. What about the elephant itself? A confined worker who, in his animal manner, resents his subjugation, he breaks loose, exercises his freedom, tramples one of his tormenters, and finally parks himself peacefully enough in a field. Yet rebellion requires punishment and he must die. The narrator is personifying the elephant, whose death description take on pathos. The characterized elephant becomes a living symbol of human nature put upon and deformed and finally sacrificed for something inhuman, but also sacrificed for the sake of the mob’s anger and appetite, so that he becomes the innocent victim of all parties, not merely of the colonial ‘‘oppressors. ’’

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A Theme Of Imperialism In Shooting An Elephant By George Orwell, And The White Man’S Burden By Rudyard Kipling. (2020, April 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from
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A Theme Of Imperialism In Shooting An Elephant By George Orwell, And The White Man’S Burden By Rudyard Kipling. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 Aug. 2022].
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