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Rhetorical Analysis of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”

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While reading the essay Shooting an Elephant, first published in 1936 by Eric Blair under the pen name of George Orwell, one gets captivated by the intricate web of rhetoric that Blair weaves throughout the piece.

Surely, the reason this essay keeps the attention of the reader so well is because Blair writes with an unmistakably strong exigency. It is this need of his to tell the world the truth about imperialism that enables him to write something so captivating.

Blair found himself in Moulmein, Burma, as a police officer of the town. He found out what imperialism really is in its naked form, and the nature of it, from an incident in which he was practically pushed into shooting an elephant by the Burmese people. Although he did not want to shoot the elephant, nor did he have to, he ended up doing so due to the immense pressure he felt during the time. The realization dawned upon him that the Burmese who are being oppressed by his people are actually the ones who are in complete control. This sudden enlightenment brought about by this somewhat bizarre occurrence is what prompted Blair to write this essay in the first place.

He realized that while it may seem that the “white man” in the East is above the people living there and is there to teach them the “right” ways, he is actually just some pawn that can be moved about the board by the people that he is there to oppress. Coming from their “superior” civilizations falsely believing that they must educate the rest of the world, the imperialists are only doing damage to themselves. Blair’s argument is made clear: that when these so-called white men turn despotic, it is their own freedom that they hinder. That is the logos of this piece. He strongly emphasizes that the imperialists are there playing the part of a conventionalized, hollow figure who does nothing but try to impress the natives and avoid being laughed at. “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it” (pg. 107, line 35).

It is obvious for whom Blair wrote this essay: the people who are somehow involved in imperialism. If a person from this intended audience were to read Shooting an Elephant they would most likely begin to grasp how futile their efforts, and the efforts of their country (the imperialist oppressors), really are. And that is exactly what Blair is trying to do; his goal is to unveil the vainness of imperialism. He wants his audience to realize what he realized, and hopefully do something about it. That is the purpose of him writing such work, and he is obviously credible enough to do so because he experienced this first-hand. It was he who was forced into shooting the elephant by the masses of Burmese people who surrounded him. It was he who felt the actual tension of imperialism upon him.

In order to accomplish his task of clarifying the true nature of imperialism for his audience, Blair appeals to many emotions along the way.

To begin with the most obvious of them all, he appeals to the curiosity of the reader. As the reader reads the first two pages, many questions are subconsciously being asked in their mind. Questions such as “What does imperialism have to do with an elephant?” surely arise. Blair’s use of appealing to curiosity here works on two rhetorical levels. One of the two levels utilized by the curiosity appeal keeps the attention of the reader and carries them on to the meat of the essay, while the other plants a few rhetorical devices (such as the appeal of spite in paragraphs one and two) and gets the reader in a certain state of mind for what Blair has in store for them. It is important to note that he does not directly address what his argument will be until paragraph three.

Along with the appeal to curiosity, Blair also employs an appeal of spite. As Blair explains how the people of the country he was in treated him and the other Europeans it gives the reader an idea of what kind of situation this particular agent of imperialism was in. And because it was the “natives” who were spiteful towards the Europeans it sways the reader to the assumption that it must have been the Europeans who were in the wrong. The reader would question “Why else would the natives treat the people who are supposed to be there to help them so poorly?” Blair cleverly planted this device in his introductory paragraphs to spawn such assumptions in the minds of the audience to back up his main argument that the efforts imperialism puts forth are in vain.

As Blair continues to expand on the actual story being told he appeals to pity on more than one occasion. The most significant appeal to pity can be found on page 108, specifically paragraph two. This paragraph reveals to the audience the mental suffering that Blair had undergone throughout this experience. At the start of the paragraph, he states that he knew exactly what to do in order to handle the situation with the elephant. Shortly there after, his attitude completely changes. He realizes he can not avoid shooting the elephant. Blair casts a certain spell over the reader with this paragraph. He writes as though he is seeing himself in the third person. He becomes “the white man”, and gives the audience the eyes of the Burmese crowd to look upon him during this moment.

The audience sees what is happening to him: his insides are melting, causing him to become the hollow, posing figurine that is the “white man” in the East. In doing so, he conforms himself to do what the crowd wants to see. He is frightened, but can not appear to be in front of the natives, and so he resists being scared. He is there, but not as himself. At this point the audience gets a true feel for just how much control that crowd had over him. The appeal to pity here is the struggle that Blair is fighting in his mind (and he makes it absolutely clear that it is indeed a struggle), which makes the audience sympathetic towards him and in turn be more liable to accept his argument as truth. The fact that in the end, contrary to his own will, he shot the elephant because that is what the Burmese crowd wanted and expected to see, is the ultimate verifying factor to the reader of the validity of his argument.

Blair appeals to pity once more on the following page, where the killing of the elephant was described in a very symbolic manner. “The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die.”(pg. 109, lines 17-18). To the reader it gives the impression that as Blair watched the animal slowly die he felt his own freedom caving in on itself, imploding inside him until he could no longer watch the result of his actions any further. Blair uses the appeal to pity throughout his telling of the events involving the elephant not only once, but a few times in order to ensure that his argument is emphasized to the audience: that when the “white man” resorts to tyranny and sets out to dominate over others, it is only his own freedom that he is inhibiting.

One can not possibly write a proper rhetorical analysis of Blair’s Shooting an Elephant without noting the significance of the very last sentence of the essay. “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.” By others he is referring to the other Europeans who were in Burma serving the British Empire along with him. He leaves the reader with this final statement to provoke thought. From this sentence, the audience picks up on the fact that he initially neglected to tell his co-imperialists about the breakthrough he had that dislodged the foundation of what they were doing in that foreign country. Blair makes the audience ask themselves “Why, why not tell them?” And perhaps many of the readers will come to the right conclusion: that instead of being too hasty, Blair chose to carefully organize his words to achieve a more powerful effect and later unfold it to them, and all others, through his writing and skilled use of rhetoric.

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