George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’ vis-a-vis ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’

George Orwell was a champion of the underprivileged and the oppressed.  Through his essays, novels and journalism he amply illustrated his solidarity with the downtrodden, be it the natives of colonial Burma or the working classes of Britain or the peasantry of Soviet Russia.  The protagonists in most of his works of fiction are drawn from the proletariat and in the case of ‘Shooting an Elephant’ it is an English policeman deputed for service in Burma.  In the essay, Orwell narrates an incident where the policeman (perhaps himself) was forced to shoot an elephant running loose and destroying everything on its way.  Although the policeman did not intend or want to kill the elephant, he was forced to do so as a way of establishing his authority over the indigenous masses.  He was also compelled to oblige due to the weight of expectations generated around the only gun wielding officer in the Elephant’s vicinity.  It is in this context that Orwell makes his valid observation that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys”.

The same observation could be extended to the contexts of slavery in nineteenth century United States of America.  In the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, we see how the white masters are abusing themselves through their oppression of African slaves.  In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the author illustrates this theme through the characters of Uncle Tom and Eliza, who conduct themselves with more dignitiy and pride than their white masters.  Similarly, in the mostly autobiographical account of the slave life of Harriet Jacobs, she narrates the humiliations and trauma that an adolescent slave girl must suffer. The ordeals she faces to ward off the sexual advances of her white master Dr.Flint shows up the latter’s moral degeneration.  In these stories, we can see how the oppression intended by the slave owners appears as a form of self-abuse and moral degradation – reinforcing Orwell’s observation in ‘Shooting an Elephant’.

References:

Yellin, Jean Fagan.Harriet Jacobs: A Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basic Civitas Books, 2004: 126. ISBN 0465092888

“The Sentimental Novel: The Example of Harriet Beecher Stowe” by Gail K. Smith, The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Writingby Dale M. Bauer and Philip Gould, Cambridge University Press, 2001, page 221.