Political action in: Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell and Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies by Salman Rushdie

For this entry, I will be comparing and analysing Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell[1] and Good Advice is rarer than Rubies by Salman Rushdie[2] as narratives through political actions. I shall investigate how such decontextualised narratives involve deeper political meaning than they initially let on and how the knowledge of such political action intended by the writers can change the whole perception of the reader’s initial thoughts and feelings towards the characters and situation of the narrative.

Context is really important in Orwell’s short narrative or essay as it is based on the rivals between England and India which the essay is set in. It is important to know because if you do not, then some of the meaning of the whole narrative may get lost in translation. The active voice of the protagonist in the story (rumoured Orwell himself as this is assumed to be an autobiographical narrative) is a white English male who may almost seem racist if some contextual background to the story wasn’t known, but if you do you realise how much the Indians have been and were and even are still going through as this was written in 1936 even before their independence in 1948. (Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 yrs (1823-1886)[3] during which 3 Anglo-Burnese wars[4] took place and incorporated it into its Indian empire. And therefore anger and hatred should be expected if not tolerated for their suffrage at the hands of the Englishmen- it would seem of course ideal but odd if they were to be civil at this time. The story is thus regarded as a metaphor for British imperialism, it should also be considered that Orwell himself is a renowned anti-imperialist[5] writer as in this narrative he promotes the idea that both conqueror and conquered are destroyed. And so, considering context, we at first assume that the protagonist of Shooting an Elephant hates those who hate him just as much as they do, however in consideration of George Orwell’s political background and interests in his previous novels and essays, these assumption change and his message is not of blame towards “the other” but that by enforcing the strict British rule of “justice”, he is forfeiting his own freedom while currently oppressing the Burnese.

In Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies, context is just as imperative as in Shooting an Elephant, here we focus in on immigration, asylum seeking and gender. We are aware of immigration, most of the time not on a personal level, we realise in this narrative how immigration has affected so many people, the character of Miss Rehana is only one of the many women lined up outside a British consulate portraying a contrast between the eastern and western culture. It is also a place illustrated by Mohammad Ali almost as a brothel, where women sell themselves and are raped mentally and possibly physically. On the other hand, maybe it is not a metaphor but a place where men of higher authority literally rape women who are most vulnerable in exchange for a glimmer of hope that they are not even guaranteed. Rushdie portrays Indian culture comparison to the western culture with many strong variations.

Shooting an elephant is a nominalisation; it assumes a narrative apart from the context which “deflects the reader’s attention further from questioning” whether it was a random shooting or a essentially devastating and scarring one. The title is almost like a nonchalant guidance statement with no emotion and framed into a static condition… we of course realise by the end that this was a murderous event. Toolan explains how nominalisation when used can be “exploited and abused: it enables the user to refer without narrating, without clear and explicit report. The teller can be economical with the facts (as the see them).”[6] And a great example for Toolan’s proclamation is indeed Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant as to those he was merely cowering under the pressure of, that was exactly what he was doing and what he actually did- he shot an elephant, but in reality and internally he was pained by the fact that his cowardice has led to him torturing the elephant and not the detached verb “shooting”.

In Shooting an Elephant, class is instantly recognised as an agitation between the protagonists and the citizens in India. Of course the obvious is first relevant, the protagonist is a white British soldier, and there is of course already friction between the Indian culture and the British. In this narrative, we ask ourselves who holds the power in this society. Is it the “army” or the law enforcement? Or is it the civilians whom clearly dislike the law enforcement and seem to disrespect them? From the narrator’s point of view, he as the soldier seems to be the victim but of course that is not the case in context, there is a reason for this hatred, they have been oppressed as a class and hence this effect has caused this aggravation. I think Orwell (considering his themes and beliefs throughout his book and essays) is on their side as in most cases, the oppressors such as the British imperialists are at fault and not the oppressed. On the other hand, the civilians in this town are made to seem “evil-spirited little beasts”, especially the perception of the Buddhist priests, whom of course are typically associated with good, natural, forgiving and godly people, here they are deemed to be the “worst of all” racist and unforgiving. This could of course be from the tension between their classes; the Buddhists may see the soldiers threatening, in which they essentially are. Along with this class distinction comes of course, gender distinction.  Toolan states that “in sociocultural practice, gender and class differences are robustly hierarchical, contriving to empower one group by dint of disempowering or marginalizing others.” [7] Orwell distinguishes how the people are scared to start a riot, and this is presumably due to the class differences, the British are of course more powerful at this point in arms and political power and within that statement he illustrates the civilians with a sense of cowardice “No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone, someone would probably spit betel juice over her dress”.  Gender is important in this distinguishment as, because it is a woman, those doing the “spitting” are deemed even more evil as we get a sense that the woman cannot defend herself the way a man could, if it had happened to a man (which no one has “the guts” for) would a riot have started?

Class and gender is very distinguished in Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies as we are presented with a stark difference between the British “Consulate gates…the bearded lala who guarded them with a golden-buttoned khaki” and the Indian “dusty compound”. There is something about “gates” that so profusely marginalizes people, thus there is a great image created here by Rushdie, where we are presented with lines full of worried and tormented women lined outside the doors of “the sahibs…eating their breakfast”. In this narrative, gender is a senior thesis; it is a narrative on a woman and her troubles. She seems “independent” care-free and beautiful, her beauty attracts men and captivates men into doing things for her, whether a bus driver jumps out to bow to her, catching many envious male eyes, drawing some kindness from the usually rude lala or of course being given “advice” free of charge, her beauty and sexuality seems to make her life easier to some extent. This is all of course from a purely visual point of view in which we are eventually shocked by the untruth of this gender assumption.  Pope states that “Gender differences are always inflected with other multicultural differences of period, class, caste, nation, religion, age and familial role”[8] Miss Rehana’s sexuality has made her a target of such gender inflected misfortune, of underage arranged marriages and dishonest intentions. However while she lives in a culture where females are oppressed in such a way Miss Rehana is presented as a strong woman, she is indeed independent which is especially shown by the fact that she does not waver to the fact that Muhammad Ali advises her not to go into the building for her own safety and preservation, but she does not waver to his advice and goes in nevertheless. What makes Miss Rehana even more impressive as a woman of independence is her strength in rejecting the higher class and the apparent opportunities in the western culture. She realises that if she does go to this western world, she will be married but locked down into the marriage and in a strange world; she instead chooses her life in India where she has a job and an independent life.

Prejudice towards ‘the other’ is also construed in this Rushdie’s narrative: Toolan states:  “In the discourses of mainstream European cultures, minority ethnic groups (like homosexuals, immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and possibly religious fundamentalists) are construed in the way that the male middle-class construes women”[9]. There is indeed a clear distinguishment between refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants. Those in a hierarchal position will treat those who are most vulnerable in needing these escapes with vulgarity and sexual abuse, they are abject  to them and take what they want in exchange for a glimpse of hope in escape.

“They will ask if she was a virgin, and, if not, what her fiancés love making habits were, and what secret nick names they have invented for one another…They will ask you how many rooms are in your family home, and what colour are the walls, and what days do you empty the rubbish. They will ask your man’s mothers third cousins aunts stepdaughters middle name. and all these things they have already asked your Mustafa Dar in his Bradford. And if you make one mistake, you are finished

Here Rushdie paints a picture of the prejudice and judgements women and even men get when facing different class structures, this paragraph shocks the reader, as Dijk[10] found in a research concerning minority ethnic groups, he found books written by majority-groups to be culturally and even physically threatening, it is why “the sahibs thought all women who came to Tuesdays…were crooks and liars and cheats” they may have been led to believe this assumption within their ignorant groups. This misogyny is also a way of keeping women tied into their possibly unrelieving culture, by providing them no escape and if they dare ask for escape, then they are degraded.

To conclude, I have found that without looking into the political actions in a narrative, a story can completely get lost in meaning, especially without some context being regarded. The consideration of gender roles, politics, context and language has definitely given me a deeper and more thoughtful insight in both Simon Rushdie’s and George Orwell’s narratives especially in correspondence to Toolan’s guide through political action.

[1] Orwell, George, Shooting an Elephant (university handout) 1936

[2] Rushdie, Salman, Good advice is Rarer Than Rubies, (university handout) 1987

[3] Blair, A.E, How a Nation Is Exploited-The British Empire in Burma (1929) http://theorwellprize.co.uk/george-orwell/by-orwell/essays-and-other-works/how-a-nation-is-exploited-the-british-empire-in-burma/

[4] Britannica, Anglo-Burmese wars, 2013   http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/24993/Anglo-Burmese-Wars

[5] Wengraf, Lee, The Orwell we never knew, International Socalist Review Issue 32, November-December (2003) http://www.isreview.org/issues/32/orwell.shtml

[6] Toolan, Michael, Narrative, a critical linguistic introduction, second edition, London and New York, 1989-1992 (p225)

[7] Toolan, Michael, Narrative, a critical linguistic introduction, second edition, London and New York, 1989-1992 (p233)

[8] Pope, Rob, The English Studies Book: An Introduction to Language, Literature and Culture, second edition, London and New York, 1998 p114

9 Toolan, Michael, Narrative, a critical linguistic introduction, second edition, London and New York, 1989-1992 (p234)

[10] Toolan, Michael, Narrative, a critical linguistic introduction, second edition, London and New York, 1989-1992 (p234)

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