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).