In this essay Orwell tells the story of shooting an elephant that went "must" (unpredictably and indiscriminately destructive to its immediate surroundings), but it's really an account of the oppressive nature of imperialism. He experienced the oppression first-hand, knowing that he ought not to kill the elephant, since it had calmed down and become manageable, but acting against his better judgment because of the powerful external forces pressuring him.
On page 45, he says: "They had seen the [elephant] rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant. They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot...I had no intention of shooting the elephant--I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary--and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you." At this point he touches upon a key aspect to collective mentality. The Indian village, though utilizing elephants on a daily basis as working tools--essentially a living piece of machinery--compounded the event's emotional momentum and lost all bearing of the possibility that if the elephant was calmed down, it could potentially be managed and preserved as an asset. I'm speculating this is how many soldiers and paper-pushers in Imperialism wake up a decade into their service, having forgotten that it could've been another way. Orwell experienced first hand that large groups of excited people don't compound intellectual thoughts, but emotional zeitgeist, and reminds me of the community gatherings in 1984 that the members of the IngSoc Party were strongly encouraged to attend. The more you group people together, the more easily they are to sway. (Hitler innately knew this, but that's a side note).
When he confronts the elephant in a field, it's chomping grass and cleaning its legs. He approaches with caution, but still the elephant pays him no mind. Though he decides to wait until the mahout (elephant trainer) returns because the elephant isn't proposing any real threat, the crowd's radioactivity renders his decision worthless and impossible. Page 46: "But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute...They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching...Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd--seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind."
The "yellow faces" in this context are just like Imperialism, in that your sense of right and wrong are pushed, pulled, squashed, and utterly determined. In the beginning of the essay he mentions that this event gave him a "better glimpse into the nature of Imperialism," and his acting against what he knew was right through killing the elephant made it clear that his morality was pressured into submission. Imperialism functions just like a mob's emotional zeitgeist. It steamrolls you and leaves no room for modification and is embodied on page 46: "It [the crowd] blocked the road for a long distance on either side."
Imperialism blocks moral roads through suppressing moral codes, only in Orwell's event an elephant was killed, and in other arenas it's entire cultures that are suppressed and oppressed.
Click the RSS FEED button below to receive notification of new Orwell 365 posts.