Both Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant” and Yeats in “Easter 1916” demonstrate not only the futility of revolutionary passion but the meaninglessness of the whole conflict between the British Empire and its subjects. In “Easter 1916,” Yeats is reflecting on the attempt of Irish revolutionaries- many of which he knew- to rebel against their British oppressors. The rebellion ultimately results in the rebels’ deaths. In his poem, Yeats reflects on the possible futures the men, some of which “might have won fame in the end” or fulfilled some other purpose (28). He notes how, though these men chose to put the freedom of Ireland above the fulfillment of those possibilities and though they believed themselves to be filled with something more than the “polite meaningless[ness]” of daily life, they ultimately failed (6). Their sacrifice was for nothing, the rebels’ lives and the survivors’ lives add up to little more than a “casual comedy” (37). There is little hope or meaning for those under Imperial reign.
Orwell shows the other side of this paradigm, demonstrating the equivalent futility of the Empire in attempting to keep their subjects from rebelling. In order to do so, the rulers must do “what the ‘natives’ expect,” even if that means committing atrocities they would not otherwise commit, like killing a peaceful animal (2570). Orwell notes, however, that such attempts are ultimately futile, and the empire will die as the elephant did, with a slow and painful death. At that point, all the atrocities committed by the empire, all the loss of men’s souls to maintain a grip on the people they have subjected to their rule, will be for nothing. Any justification for the action will be a flimsy excuse (2571).
In both William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” the topic of imperialism and what is required to sustain such a cruel system seem to be the main topics for both writers. Context is important here. Yeats’ native Ireland has been under the dominion of England for centuries and was in the middle of fighting for “Home Rule” when he wrote “The Second Coming”. Orwell on the other hand was an Englishman born in India, and later served in a police force in Burma. With these two varying perspectives on imperialism, both arrive at similar conclusions. Orwell describes, during his recounting of an incident involving a mad elephant, the “the futility of white man’s dominion in the East”(2569). His disillusionment with the British Empire may not have been held by many of his contemporaries in Burma, but by acknowledging the worthlessness of the empire and some of its wrongs he already exhibits the kind of foresight we associate him with after writing 1984.
Yeats seems to also foretell the end of Imperial dominion when he writes that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” (l. 4-5). This sense of anarchy would have characterized the situation in post-war Ireland perfectly. Some were agitating for political separation, some remained undecided, and others were ready for bloody revolution. Yeats mentions this when he later writes that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (l.7-8) This kind of chaos could also describe Orwell’s time in Burma. Both writers foretell the fall of anarchy and both seem to suggest that it will not fall by peaceful and calm means, but by turbulent and violent ones.
George Orwell and James Joyce have similar themes in “Araby” and “Shooting an Elephant.” The stories share some common themes even though they were written several years apart. In both stories, we see someone the narrator is trying to please or impress. In “Araby” the narrator is trying to impress the girl, and in “Shooting an Elephant” he is trying to please the people. These stories show the desire to be a part of British Imperialism, but ultimately realizing that it is not all it seemed to be. In “Araby” the boy’s realization comes upon arriving at the bazaar late and attempting to find something for the girl. This is the moment when he no longer is driven completely by lust for the girl, and he realizes what it is really like. This is Joyce’s way of portraying British Imperialism, and what it is like trying to appease those in control. In “Shooting an Elephant” Orwell details his feelings on the matter in a slightly different way. Orwell’s perspective was unique as he was a member of the police in India. Orwell wrote about his experiences, using “Shooting an Elephant” to show the pressure Imperialism puts on him. He says, “The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.” Both Orwell and Joyce also expressed emotions of regret at the end of their stories. This conveys the point that both are disappointed in what Imperialism had brought them and that they both thought it would be better. Joyce said, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” and Orwell said, “In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away.”
Most imperial authors were strong advocates for the spread of imperialism. William Yeats and George Orwell seemed to take a different approach to the movement. Orwell was a sub divisional police officer during the turbulent time that India was still under British rule. Despite the attitude that might have been expected by an imperialist police officer at the time, Orwell had an attitude of resentment towards imperialism. This was a surprising attitude to adopt at this time, because he himself was a European. The fact that he was chastised daily in the streets by jeering natives, but that he still resents imperialism is a contradiction. He states “All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better” (Orwell 2567). In other words even though being a sub divisional police officer was his job it was not one he enjoyed. Just as Orwell thought of imperialism as evil, William Yeats characterized the second coming as the return of Satan. He remarks “When a vast image out of Spirtus Mundi troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert a shape with lion body and the head of a man” (Yeats 2183). Yeats is personifying the pervasiveness of imperialism as the evilness of Satan. Both Yeats and Orwell demonstrate apathetic attitudes toward imperialism.
While George Orwell and William Butler Yeats wrote in different forms, they both hosted feelings of resentment toward the era of imperialism they lived in. Orwell was a police officer during the ties of intense rivalry between that of the British imperialists and the Indian Natives. He also happened to be a mixed-race person which further intensified his anxieties. When writing about his experiences, Orwell draws on imaginative descriptions and literary devices to push across a tone of intense anti-imperialism. On page 2567 Orwell wrote, “I was a sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling way very bitter.”
It would seem that William Butler Yeats shared feelings of anti-imperialism/anti-British sentiment as exhibited in his poem “The Second Coming.” On page 2183, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” The beast he mentions is presumably a tyrannical force that can be interpreted as an official government.
In both “Araby” and “Shooting an Elephant,” there is an important task at hand for both speakers. The speaker in Araby must go to this bazaar in order to impress the girl he likes. As soon as he gets to the bazaar, he is met with defeat. His wish to impress the girl is not fulfilled, because he reaches the realization that he had been deceived by both her and the allure of the bazaar. His hopes were too high and in the end, he was disappointed. This scenario is somewhat comparable to the speaker in “Shooting an Elephant” because the speaker also had expectations for himself that were not met. For example, the speaker did not plan, in the slightest, to kill the elephant. The idea did not cross his mind, and he repulsed by the idea of killing the elephant. Even when he realized that he “had” to kill the elephant in order to please the crowd, he was still against it. I think that both speakers have something/someone that they want to please, but in the end, they are only disappointed in themselves. The final sentence in Araby could easily be added to “Shooting an Elephant” because both speakers are feeling the same way. “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (2222) is the point in which the young boy in “Araby” comes to the realization that he is nothing more than a part to the machine. I think that the speaker in “Shooting an Elephant” surely felt the same way after doing something that he considers evil. The speaker in “Shooting an Elephant” comes to the realization that he is nothing more than a puppet being controlled by those who easily outnumber him. The self-reflective nature of both characters is a similarity that stands out the most. Both speakers take a look inside themselves, and come to the conclusion that they ultimately do not like what they see.
An important facet to the stories of both the boy in “Araby” and Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant” is their naivete and ignorance, which ultimately ends in disillusionment. The boy in “Araby” encounters feelings of lust and romance for the first time in his life, being enchanted by Mangan’s sister “I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.” He is so enamored with her that when she mentions going to Araby it becomes a heroic quest for the boy: “The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.” At the end of “Araby,” however, we see that the bazaar is full of cheap english chotchkies. The story ends with the boy concluding that: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” The boy sees now the imperialism of the world he lives in, and simply gives up.
Orwell too has a moment of clarity in “Shooting an Elephant,” during the climax of the story, when faced with the challenge of what to do, he decides to kill the elephant. Not because he believed it was the right thing to do, but rather, because he feared being mocked: “My whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” Orwell offers himself up as a part of the imperialist machine, “solely to avoid looking a fool.” However, he regrets this action after, and, helpless in aiding the elephant in death, Orwell, “could not stand it any longer and went away.”
In both works, both characters undergo transformation in the unfulfillment of their goals. It is in the disappointment of their quests that they truly see the underbelly of Imperialist Britain, and choose to reject it by running away.
Orwell and James Joyce provide insight into the natives feelings toward England. Joyce notes that a few street singers in Ireland sang a song about the Irish nationalist, O’Donovan Rossa. They also sing about “troubles in our native land” (2219). He is showing discontent among the people. Orwell mentions similar feelings in India. He comments that a group of Buddhist priest’s sole purpose was to “stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” (2567). These two authors are portraying how the natives publicly displayed their hatred toward England, the Imperial power.
Another interesting similarity between the two authors is their perception on the duty of the English rulers. Joyce mentions in Araby that an English lady spoke to the narrator “out of sense of duty” (2222). Orwell fully explains this duty by observing that when a foreign nation rules another nation, the rulers of that nation “wear a mask” with the purpose of “trying to impress the ‘natives’” (2570). He explains that it was the perceived duty of the English to appease the indigenous people. Both Orwell and Joyce wrote against the Imperial stance of Britain, so they incorporated the animus feeling of the native people to convict the British people that the Empire was dying.
Faulkner said: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it.” This is advice is cliché because it is so intuitive: by taking the time to read any given genre of fiction of any given quality, you have an opportunity to either learn from the masters or learn from other writers’ mistakes. Yet, I think this advice can be taken still further. One can learn how to write better fiction by reading non-fiction, and vice-versa. This is part of the reason why we are reading Darwin in our English course: literature encompasses far more than pure fiction.
When Darwin wrote of his first encounters with the Fuegians, he wrote a story. His story’s characters were comprised of Fuegians and Beagle crewmembers; he was the stalwart protagonist. The plot followed actual events as he perceived them. Anybody reading his account in 19th century Britain might have thought the account was interesting because as far as they know, the described events may very well have occurred in real life. What kept people reading, however, was Darwin’s use of provocative language and storytelling—techniques that are more obvious in “pure literature.” Regardless of how interesting a real-life event may be, the efficacy of its conveyance relies upon the same principles as “pure literature.”