Images of imperialism in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

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Essay for “Versions of Foreign” writing seminar (Prof.  Oxfeld).

Imperialism, as many significant parts of history (old and contemporary) of civilization is a multifaceted phenomenon. Many view it as the noble enterprise, a “white man’s burden” that brings culture and civilization to savages. Others regard it as a divine devoir of spreading the “right” religion and moral to otherwise would be perishing in the ignorance populace. The view exists, that imperialism is just the primordial biological principal of expansion augmented into the social life of human beings. Yet others, consider it as the cruel conquest of powerless people  by nations who are stronger and more advanced, referring to it as a phenomenon inherent to greedy capitalism. Accordingly, the vast variety of images of imperialism, reflecting those and other views can be found in literature on imperial history.

The two examples of such writing, considered in this essay, show different and somewhat conflicting perspectives of imperialism. In his short essay, Orwell provides an outright critical snapshot of empire-building. The Conrad’s novel, lengthier in volume and time span covered, is less straightforward. Marlow’s reflections are more subtle. He, one could argue, starts out in the beginning of the book as a believer of the imperial rhetoric. Even though Marlow does encounter and describe to us (with disgust) the atrocities and hypocrisy he finds at the stations, he never really strongly condemns or criticizes it. Despite the differences of the views of imperialism both stories provide, there are some commonalities, of which the most important is the image of degradation that tyrannies of colonization impose on colonizers themselves. Before turning to the analysis, it’s worthwhile noting that as the story in the both pieces is presented as a very personal account of the main heroes, we have to analyze the imagery provided mostly through the reflections and opinions of the protagonists.

Orwell’s immediate image of imperialism is that of a pure evil. He does not even try to mask this view in metaphorical reflections, as he states at the very begging of his essay:

“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”.

 His disgust with the British Empire is due partially to the fact that he deals with, as he calls it, the dirty work of the empire. He explicitly states that he hates his job and, at least in heart, is opposed to his country’s empire-building.

“Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters”

Obviously, he’s not benefiting much from his nation’s imperialistic advances, which allows him to critically appraise it. He actually notes the atrocities his country is committing and feels guilty for being part of it:

“The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.”

Nevertheless, he is working as a policeman, and his job here is to enforce the British order, which he hates. On the other hand, he does not idealize natives, considering them uneducated, not trustworthy, and lazy. He does not understand them and fears in a certain way. This drives him into a duplicity he struggles with as he tries to perform his duties.

“All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and  my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible”

 This feeling reinforces the negative impression of imperialism he provides, as even the rage against conquered local populace cannot reconcile the author with the evils of empire.

This double sided hatred and ambiguity of his position makes him to realize the absurdity of British presence in the colony. While he is facing the dilemma of whether to shoot the elephant, he notes how strange the situation is. He feels so much pressure from the crowd that, for a moment, it is imperialism turned upside-down:

“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.”

And then Orwell makes the conclusion, which I think is the most powerful in his essay:

“I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

Sic! Colonization is a two sided process. There is always the feedback influence of colonization on colonizer. We’ll find the similar thought in the Conrad’s novel. I had noted earlier the close concept in Demos’s “Unredeemed captive”, which I think is worthwhile to repeat here:

“And at some deeper (mostly unacknowledged) level there will be growing worry that the process might reverse itself-so as to make the currents of change run the opposite way. Instead of their civilizing the wilderness (and it’s savage habitants), the wilderness might change, might uncivilized them ” (Demos, ch.1, p.4)

Imperialism always follows the same pattern. A country with enough power and resources, uses hem to go and conquer other lands in order to get even more power and resources. This being the interest of primarily the imperialistic nation’s government and power holders rather than of its people, the government invents bogus moral justification for their empire-building behaviors in order to entice the public to support the action. This is how the case begins with Marlow, in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. His aunt being a perfect example of people believing in the bright and glorious image of imperialism, refers to Marlow as an “emissary of light, something like a lower side of apostle”, who is going to “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways”.

Although being much more skeptical then his aunt, Marlow has no trouble initially accepting the rhetoric justifying imperialism. He truly believes that the natives he encounters in the African woods are not of the human race at all, but instead are some kind of wild creatures, as is evident from his vivid description on their trip upriver:

“They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.”

However, the images of utter disorder and inefficiencies at the stations, the scenes of dying of exhaustion natives, just lying in the grove near the station, start shaking the picture of noble endeavor. But then he starts hearing from everybody about Mr. Kurtz, who, according to talks, was sent by the Company’s directors as the emissary of new Western ideals (Marlow himself being in the same cohort as the chief brickmaker says): “You are the new gang – the gang of virtue”.

 Those stories about the marvelous and virtuous Mr. Kurtz, whose intention was that

“Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center of trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing”,

became like a bright fancy blur covering the harsh reality that Marlow observed on the stations: the incompetent manager, whose only virtue was good health, the devastating inability of the organization to perform simple functions such as bringing the rivets for ship repair, the cruelty of “pilgrims” beating to death natives.

The blur starts to evaporate slightly, when we hear about Kurtz obsession with possession: the inner station, the ivory, the river-everything is innately his, and when we learn about his report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, which is concluded with handwritten: “Exterminates the Brutes”.

From the way the story is built, to certain extent, it’s plausible to identify the image of yet virtual Kurtz with the image of imperial conquest. As Marlow learns more about Kurtz the image drifts to positive or to negative, depending of what kind of information Marlow gets hold. This is especially clear as Marlow listens to the story of Russian trader, who has almost superficial esteem for Kurtz. First we learn about the enormous influence Kurtz had on natives and how easily it was for him to obtain the ivory, but then we began to understand the Kurtz’s method– he terrified the natives, making himself into a kind of god:

“…he came to them with thunder and lightning, you know-and they had never seen anything like it-and very terrible. He could be very terrible.”

 The final blow Kurtz’s image, and by suggested allegory, the image of imperialism sustains when Marlow notices that what he had originally taken for the ornamental balls on the fence poles, turned to be the sculls of natives, the rebels heads, as Russian explained to him:

 “These round knobs were not ornamental, but symbolic….there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids-a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole”.

Strange, as it may seem, is Marlow’s reaction: “I was not so shocked as you may think”.

This image reinforces the Orwell’s observation that a man turning tyrant destroys his own freedom. The colonization hits not only the powerless enslaved victims, it degrades the colonizer also. The unlimited, unchecked power ruins even the most moral person.

After reading and analyzing these novels, I could not help but notice striking similarity between the above conclusion and one of the images of the US’s imperialistic ambition now-a-days. I am referring to the killing of 17 civilians in Bagdad by Blackwater guards. People, supposed to defend the law and order but possessing the enormous unchecked power-the untouchables-degrade to cold-blooded killers shooting women and children like rabbits. Like Marlow, nobody is shocked. Strange?

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