The subtext within Shooting the Elephant involves the struggle to find an authentic voice in the midst of ceding to authority and group thought. Shooting the Elephant is about a moment in Eric Arthur Blair’s (George Orwell) young life when he was forced, by a number of external forces, to shoot an elephant. The task of a great writer is to take a relatively benign moment in their life and translate it into a meaningful moment, and by doing so unearth the ideas and characters involved. In the course of discovery, an author might become obsessed with why they acted the way they did. What was my motivation at the time, a writer may ask, and what does it say about me, or what does it say about humanity as a whole?
As a standalone, i.e., listing off the events that took place, I’m guessing that the aspiring Eric Arthur Blair considered the story incomplete and without purpose. I’m guessing that he probably wrote and rewrote it so many times, and introduced creative bridges, that he couldn’t remember which details took place and which details he created to support the bridge between actual events that took place and that which would make the moment transcendent.
We can also guess, based upon what Blair would achieve under the pseudonym George Orwell, that the search for the quality story, supported by a quality theme, was the driving force behind his effort. If the driving force behind writing a story is to achieve fame or acclaim, so goes the theory, you’ll have neither the fame nor a quality story. The mentality most quality writers bring to a piece is that fame and acclaim are great, but it should be nothing more than a welcome byproduct of a well-written piece. Shooting the Elephant is a really good story, but the thought provoking, central message is the reason Eric Arthur Blair would go on to achieve fame as George Orwell.
It’s possible –knowing that Shooting the Elephant was one of Orwell’s first stories– that the theme of the story occurred in the exact manner Orwell portrays, and he built the story around that theme, and he then proceeded to build a writing career around that theme. The actuality of what happened to Orwell, while employed as the British Empire’s police officer in Burma is impossible to know, and subject to debate, but the quality of the psychological examination Orwell puts into the first person, ‘I’ character is not debatable, as it relays to the pressure the onlookers exert on the main character, based on his mystique. It’s also the reason Orwell wrote this story, and the many other stories that examine this theme in numerous ways.
The first person, ‘I’ character of George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant was a sub-divisional police officer of the town of Burma. Orwell writes how this job, as sub-divisional police officer, brought him to a point where he began to see the evil underbelly of imperialism, a result of the Burmese people resenting him for his role as the one placed among them to provide the order the British Empire for the otherwise disorderly “natives” of Burma. Orwell writes, how he in turn, began to loathe some of the Burmese as a result, while secretly cheering them on against the occupiers, his home country Britain. It all came to a head, for him, when a trained elephant went must<1>. Orwell’s responsibility, to those he swore to protect, and to those who commissioned him to protect, as a sub-divisional police officer, was to shoot the elephant.
Orwell describes the encounter in this manner:
“It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.”
The escaped elephant gone must wreaked some carnage in his path from the bazaar to the spot where Orwell came upon him. En route to the eventual spot where Orwell came upon the elephant, Orwell encountered several Burmese people who informed him of the elephant gone must. Orwell then discovered a dead man on the elephant’s destructive path that Orwell describes as a black Dravidian<2>coolie in one spot of the story, and a Coringhee<3> coolie in another. Several witnesses confirmed, for Orwell, the fact that the elephant killed the man.
When the ‘I character’ finally comes upon the elephant, he sees it “peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow,” Orwell then describes the Burmese throng that surrounded him:
“It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. 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. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib<4>. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. 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.”
Orwell states that he did not want to shoot the elephant, but he felt compelled by the very presence of the thousands of “natives” surrounding him to proceed. He writes:
“A white man mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that (coolie) up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh.”
In the aftermath of the shooting of the animal, Orwell describes the controversy that arose, and he concluded it in the following manner:
“I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”
The Hard-Ass Boss
At a warehouse-sized office I worked in, we had a supervisor who enjoyed the mystique of being a hard-ass. He enjoyed having those of us under him believe that he would do whatever it took to help the employees on his team achieve maximum efficiency. If we did well, he took credit for it. He was proud to take credit for it, and we were supposed to feel proud when we made him look good. Some of my team members were proud, for there are always some who enjoy autocratic rule. What they didn’t consider was what might happen if they had a poor quarter. Not only did he deflect 100% of the blame to the accused, but in a stylistic homage to Josef Stalin, he had them unceremoniously stricken from the record. We had a friend sitting next to us, laughing at our jokes and telling us stories from their life one day, and we had an empty desk sitting next to us the next. If he didn’t choreograph the chilling effect this had on the team, he might have taken credit for it if we asked him about it.
In this particular office, a sub-par employee had so many chances to recover from past performance that it was an ongoing joke among the employees that we could set the building ablaze and nothing of consequence would happen. If our perceptions of this climate were anywhere close to the truth, this supervisor stood out. In a corporate climate of managers defining supervisors on their creative abilities to retain employees and receive quality, employee review scores from those employees, our supervisor was an aberration. I do not know if the numbers we produced for him placed him above reproach among his superiors, or if my fellow employees were afraid to score low on their reviews during his tenure as their boss, but he managed to remain a supervisor of a team that hated him. If the reader knows anything about the corporate climate of America today, and the constant reviews employees and their bosses undergo, they know that is a near-herculean chore.
The walk to an unscheduled, closed-door, one-on-one with this supervisor was equivalent to a criminal suspect being frog marched into a courthouse. The audience of it found themselves caught between trying to see the emotions on accused’s face and trying to look away to preserve the accused’s dignity. These moments informed us that in a world of supervisors claiming to have our back, in closed-door sessions with Human Resources and their managers, we had one that had so little concern for us that he did not even try to fake the support other supervisors did.
Those of us who worked under this hard ass boss knew he would not defend us, even if we had verifiable reasons that warranted a defense. We figured that if we had that reason that we might have to go to our Human Resources department to mount our own defense, and there was also a sneaking suspicion that we might have to mount a defense against him in that meeting.
This resulted in most of us believing that he cared little about us and only about advancing his mystique, until it advanced him within the company. Was this a fair characterization? It might not have been, but it was pervasive throughout the team, and he never did anything to dispel us of this notion.
Thus, when I was frog marched into my first unscheduled one-on-one session with him, I was astonished to find out that not only did I receive the least severe punishment possible, but I didn’t receive the punishment specifically proscribed for my offense. He informed me of the charges against me, and he provided print outs of my action in the event that I might mount a defense, and then he cut my punishment in half. He did so in a congenial manner that I found unsettling, and his unassuming smile of sympathy was so shocking that I experienced an inexplicable disappointment.
Another inexplicable emotion I experienced was a diminished respect for him that I couldn’t avoid pursuing. My characterization of him, compiled data furnished by him and the group thought that pronounced such characterizations after all of his actions, left me with blanks to fill that included pleasant and unassuming characteristics.
He offered me another pleasant and unassuming smile in the silence that followed.
“See, I’m not such a bad guy,” he said.
Had he had asked me what I thought of this side of him, before I left the boardroom, I would’ve told him that he would have been better off refraining from all that smiling. “Smiles look weird on your face,” is something I might have said. I would have added that there was nothing unusual, or unattractive about that smile, but that it just looked odd on him. I also would have informed him that we both would’ve been better off if just gave me the proscribed punishment for my offense. I would’ve told him that the mystique he had a hand in creating, and that which was so firmly entrenched by the time I entered this boardroom, placed him in a no-win situation … “If,” I would add, “it is your hope that I like you, or in anyway consider you to be something other than a bad guy.” I would’ve informed him that once you establish a firm, hard-ass leadership mystique, doing otherwise will only lead the recipient of your leniency to believe that you are flexing an authoritative muscle in a condescending reminder to those under your stewardship that they will forever be subjected to your whims and moods, until they leave the room loathing you more than they had when they entered.
I would’ve ended my assessment by informing him that he’s so worked hard to foster this image, and sustain this mystique, that he should probably just sit back and enjoy it. The employees on your team are now working harder than they ever have, because they fear that you won’t do anything to help them if they don’t. They are also putting a great deal of effort into avoiding anything that could even be reasonably perceived as wrongdoing, based on the idea that if they get caught up in something that you won’t defend them. I would tell him that by firmly establishing yourself as a hard-ass boss you’ve given up the freedom of latitude in your actions. We’ve adjusted our working lives to this mask you created, and any attempt you make, going forward, to foster a “nice guy” image will be perceived as weakness, and it will not redound to the benefit for any of the parties involved.
It’s too late for you, and your current mystique, I would inform him, but if you want to escape this cycle in your next management position, clear your desk library of all of these unread “how-to lead” guides that you have arranged for maximum visibility and pick up a copy of Orwell’s Shooting the Elephant. In this story, you will find the true detriment of creating a hard-ass boss mask, until your face grows into it, and while it may impress your superiors to be this way, the downside will arrive when you try to impress upon “the natives” the idea that you’re not such a bad guy after all, and you spend the rest of your days trying to escape the spiraling duality of these expectations.
<1> Must, or Musth, is a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones.
<2> A Dravidian is described as any of a group of intermixed peoples chiefly in S India and N Sri Lanka
<3> “A Coringhee coolie” refers to such an Indian immigrant working in colonial Burma as an unskilled laborer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
<4> Sahib –A name of Arabic origin meaning “holder, master or owner”.