Orwell and Yeats: Two Sides of the Same Coin

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).

One thought on “Orwell and Yeats: Two Sides of the Same Coin

  1. I think this is a very useful insight. The aftermath of each human disaster in modern society seems to have been followed by some kind of exhausted restlessness– in the context of the world wars, holocaust, and government purges of the 20th century, the keyword of this era might be “anomie.”

    Still, I think the dialectic between moral disaster and exhaustion is rooted in an origin that is at least somewhat rational. The Irish nationalists who died in the Rising chose to fight and die because they had decided that a free Ireland would be better for their children. It is only from the author’s perspective, and from the perspective of many Protestant Irishmen and British subjects, that these fighters died for little more than a “causal comedy.”

    Orwell shot an elephant “solely to avoid looking a fool” (2569) but from the perspective of his commanders, the authority he demonstrated was necessary in order to maintain the empire that would continue to sustain the British people– if only for a little while longer.

    Unfortunately, the actions of these motivated factions always created exogenous consequences– consequences that would affect the motivated and unmotivated alike. Easter Rising created widows of both Catholics and Protestants. In colonial empires, European officers worked with native collaborators to oversee their subject populations, and between the quashed rebellions and aggressive invasions, all were affected. Those who fought for a cause became disillusioned, and they came to despair along with those who had none to begin with.

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