A Marxist Reading of George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant with Special Reference to Dual Identity


Mahadev Devkota and Shree Prasad Devkota – TRANSCEND Media Service

7 Feb 2018 – This paper is an attempt to analyze George Orwell’s groundbreaking short story in terms of Marxist perspectives, elucidates the relationship between the Great Britain and the Indian. The former is privileged and grasps the power to define, reconstruct and stereotypes the latter one. Oneof the Orwell’s major concerns during his life was an issue of dual identity, self-contradiction and conflicting feelings towards natives. In this study, the relationship between westerners or representer or bourgeoisie and the Easterner  or represented or proletariats is expounded in shooting an Elephant.


Marxism, Dual identity and Self-Contradiction

A stable and monolithic definition of Marxism is almost impossible, because Marxism is a heterogeneous and diffuse field, embracing a wide range of practice: class struggle, forces of production, identity, self-contradiction, commodification and so on. It is a set of theories, or a system of thought and analysis, developed by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century in response to the western industrial revolution and the rise of industrial capitalism as the predominant economic mode. It is directed at social change; Marxists want to analyze social relations in order to change them; in order to alter what they see are the gross injustices and inequalities’ created by capitalist’s economic relation (M.H.Abrams,2007,148).

Marxism theory is based on the assumption of forces of production, the way goods and service are produce and , in capitalist society inevitable breed conflict between social class, which are shaped by the way economic sources are used and who profits from them. As a result, the struggle between bourgeoisiewho controls the means of production and the proletariats, who reduce their service for their wages, arises (Jameson, 1971). The struggle has two aspects- physical and ideological. Marx refers to this contradiction as dialectical materialism. The Marxist is aware that the working class does not recognize the system in which it has been caught.

Marxism deals with an examination of societal behavior, Marxist criticism can be applied to many things. One of the ways in which Marxist criticism can be used is in the process of inspect the manner in which people or systems use other people or system for their own advantage, usually  to the detriment of whoever is being used. This sort of communicationplays a vital role in this short story “Shooting an Elephant “by George Orwell. A significant part of the story ‘s narration is spent arguing the relations between Britain, country of origin  and India in which he exercised his power as a Sub-divisional police officer. Thecountry is a muchlop-sided one, as a Marxist criticism reveals a significant imbalance of power between developed and developing nation(Bina Shah, 2015, p.188).

Shooting an Elephant is an artistic piece of literature in which the author replicates Class struggle between the working class and the elite one. In other names theproletariats and the bourgeoisie and their struggle. George Orwell, the author of this text, unfolds a number of problems of the society because of the class struggle in capitalistic society, is a root cause of social and economic problems. Besides this, it also discloses Orwell ‘s dilemma in terms of identity as he expressed his sympathy towards Burmese people, the colonized or the working class people and equally feeling pride being the citizen of Great Britain ,the colonizer or the elite one .

A Man of Contradiction and Paradox: George Orwell

Paradox and Contradiction are the common characteristics of western writers who wrote about non-westerns. George Orwell, a son of British Raj, experienced about Burma was not far from this. He was failure to connect himself where he was born and served five years as  an Indian Imperial Police, and experienced the feelings of being a Sahib.Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is fruitful in this context. He states that there are two types of human society: Political and Civil Society. In some society, Political society plays dominant role and in some other civil society. In the former, the state use soldiers and Police force to suppress the people’s voice and interest. Apparently, such nation seems powerful and peace. However, the sense of revolt is not only active in people’s unconscious mind but within the nation boundary as well. In the latter, there is the proper management of people will and aspiration. Gramsci further says that ideological imposition is more dangerous than cruel dictator. In the present essay, the writer presents himself in dilemma. His conflicting feelings, such as to sympathize with the natives, to pity for their wretchedness, to acclaim their periphery custom and lifestyle; while under other circumstances to hate them and treat them as less human which must be ruled by their westerns for the reason that they are racially, civilization ally, culturally, genetically inferior as unsettling.

In Lion and Unicorn, he narcissisms his hatred of imperialism but on the other hand, he defends British Empire against other foreigner invaders such as Japan, Italy, and he strongly holds that British Empire in India cannot and must not be substituted by other countries; if so, a real catastrophe happens both for the British and Indianpeople. Any disintegration in part of the Britishexpirer results in bad condition for the British and consequentlymany Indian starve to death. He calls British ‘hypocritical toward their empire’ , because the Empire is a money –maker enterprise which flourishes war-ridden economy of England, and the British yearns for the better economy”(Ibid).This paradox still remains unsolved for Orwell himself, because he himself a British citizen wishes for a better life while this better life is unattainable, unless British Empire remains Empire.


A plot Summary and Commentary on Shooting an Elephant

This essay,” Shooting An Elephant” was written by George Orwell, the British novelist and satirist, first published in the anti-fascist literary magazine and later broadcast by the BBC Home Service in 1948.Taking place during the British occupation of Burma, it reflects the writer’s personal experiences regarding British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny and the most importantly his helpless situation asa Sub-divisional police officer, representative of colonizer. Moreover, the author replicates Class struggle between the working class and the elite one. In other names the proletariats and the bourgeoisie and their struggle. He further unfolds a number of problems of the society because of the class struggle in capitalistic society, is a root cause of social and economic problems. Besides this, it also exposes Orwell ‘s predicament in terms of identity as he expressed his sympathy towards Burmese people, the colonized or the working class people and equally feeling pride being the citizen of Great Britain ,the colonizer or the elite one .Thus, it has become the focus of the study in this article.

Orwell portrayed the main character’s dissatisfactionthat is torn between serving the corrupt, uncivilized and oppressive country where he works to maintain law and order. He writes:

All this was perplexing and upsetting .For at that time I has already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and go out of it better(Orwell,year).

The above extract explicitly shows the writer’s unpleasantassertiveness towards imperialism. No doubt, imperialism is a policy of forcefully extending a nation’s authority by territorial gain or by the establishment of economic and political dominance over the nations. He feels sorry for the Burmese being exploited in their own land and determined to quit his job contradicts with his real nature towards the native people. Mentioning the stereotypical attitudes towards native, Orwell further says:

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 mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something calmed down, in specula 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 Buddhists priest’s guts (Orwell, year).

It is apparent that he was in sandwiched between the oppressor and the oppressed. His disgusts and anger towards empire who never exercise his own will and freedom and native people’s unsupportive nature, made his job impossible. Thus, the Marxist believes the division between classes will widen and the condition of the exploited worker will deteriorate so badly that social structure collapse, the class struggle is transformed into a proletarian revolution. For instance: native people’s anger and their target to spit betel  juice over the European women, the referee support over native team and his helpless situation to shoot an elephant shows the growing consciousness over proletariat against British Raj and their hidden motive to snatch the natural resources to continue their market in the name of civilizing task.

The narrator was left to choose between the life of the elephant and his own reputation. Orwell then ignored his conscience and chooses to shoot the elephant in order to save his pride. That is to say, ‘A sahib has got to act like a sahib. Finally, he shoots an elephant. He further says that it was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling’sgasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony. It takes nearly half an hour to die. The native people who are deny their individuality and identity as a being united themselves knowingly or unknowingly to create pressure on the narrator to shoot an elephant. Symbolically, it highlights the success of native people or proletariats to chase the British Imperialists or bourgeoisie from Burma.

In the concluding part of the story, there were endless discussion about the shooting an elephant. The owner was furious but could not do anything because he was Indian. European’sopinion was divided .Older men said what Orwell did was right and the younger men said that it was a shameful act  to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie,because an elephant was worth more than a Coringhee coolie-“I was very glad,” he says “ that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right.” It truly deconstructs his sympathy   attitude towards native, and dehumanization of coolie or oppressed and highlights the superiorityof being oppressor or colonized.

Hence, this essay demonstrates the futility and true horror of imperialism, widens the gap between natives and Europeans. Most importantly, Burmese journey for independence and freedom.


This text apparently depicts the class conflict between the European and Burmese people presented in the form of binary opposition, contradiction and stereotypical views from time and again in the story. The narrator’s double standard, condemning the imperialistic mission of bourgeois and The Burmese as gutless,evil-spirited little beast and presented British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny justify the elite class exploitation and injustice towards working class people i.e. native people. Furthermore, division between west and non-west, as a bourgeois and proletariats, dehumanization of coolie and feeling glad he was died to hide his real intention justify his self-contradiction.


Mahadev Devkota is a Lecturer of Madhyabindu Multiple Campus. He is a Tribhuwan University graduate, has a Master’s in English Literature. He has been working at the same institution for the last nine years. Also, He has the experience of working in different school and campuses. Besides this, he has worked as an expert in different I/NGOS. He has published several research articles in local and national journals. Moreover, He is a member of Nepal English Language Teachers Association(NELTA).Academic Publishing, Madhyabindu Journal(Nepal),2016 Ethics.Madhyabindu Journal(Nepal),2017 The Day They Burned the Books: Multicultural Self-Identity.

Shree Prasad Devkota is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment. He is a Kathmandu University graduate, has a Master’s in Mathematics Education and M.phl in Development Studies. Currently he is chairperson of SDEF–Sustainable Development and Empowerment Forum, and has worked as a lecturer. He is researcher in the field development sectors in Nepal and has worked as consultant, monitoring and evaluation expert in different I/NGOs. Devkota has been working in the field of education of children, marginalized and socially excluded groups, especially on conflict management regarding the post-conflict situation in Nepal. He has published several research articles in national and international journals. Books: Teacher’s Lived Experiences and Contextualized Mathematics, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, Germany, 2012. Education in Nepal from Dalit Perspective, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, Germany, 2013. Conflict in School and Its Management, with Shiba  Bagale, Scholars’ Press, Germany, 2015. Life and Education of Children in Nepal (Pre and Post Peace Agreement a Comparative Study) Adroit Publishers , India,2017.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Feb 2018.

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