Shooting an Elephant: Using Literature to Take Historical Perspectives

James Miles

James Miles teaches Social Studies, I.B. History, and Social Justice 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School, where he has taught for six years. He recently completed his MA in Social Studies Education at UBC. He is interested in incorporating local history, historical photographs, and other primary sources into his classroom.

To me, perspective taking remains the historical thinking concept that is most difficult for students to grasp. Avoiding presentism in understanding a foreign past is a problem for all students of history, myself included. This year I have been exploring ways for students to take perspectives using primary sources.

One idea I borrowed from the field of ‘new historicism’ was for students to look at a piece of literature from a time period as a way to understand the ways of thinking, beliefs, prejudices and ideologies from that time. In other words: fictional historical perspective taking.

This exercise immediately provoked several concerns. I wondered if introducing literature in history was complicating the study of the past and that I might have students taking fiction to be factual historical accounts. Secondly, I worried about choosing appropriate and readable fiction as no high school teacher would feel comfortable handing students copies of Anna Karenina and telling them to come back next class to explain what it reveals about 19th century Russia. With these worries in mind, I gave it a try.  

What does the Elephant represent?

My IB History 11 class is studying the interwar period, specifically looking at the changes in the British Empire post WWI.  My students had the common perception that most British people from that time must have supported the Empire as it was probably beneficial to them. To help my students challenge this historical perspective I turned to the work of George Orwell and his 1936 essay, Shooting an Elephant.

Shooting an Elephant describes the experience of a British police officer in Burma who is called upon to shoot an elephant that has killed an Indian man. Orwell at one point held a similar position to the narrator, which has provoked debate that his essay is in fact autobiographical. Whether the essay is fictional or not is not of great importance, as I was using it as a source for taking the historical perspective of a British colonial officer in the interwar period.

In the essay the narrator explains, “in a job like this you see the dirty work of the empire at close quarters.” I hoped my students would see these workings and begin to better understand what Orwell was criticizing about the British Empire and why a upper-class British man like Orwell would write that the British Raj was “dying,” describing it as a “tyranny, something clamped down … upon the will of prostrate peoples.” 

After reading the essay I asked my students the following questions:

1) What is the narrator’s job in the essay?  How does he feel about that job?

 2) Why does the narrator feel that he must shoot the elephant even though he doesn’t want to?        

 3) Is the elephant representative of a larger historical issue/theme? If so what?

4)   Based on this essay what can we understand about Orwell’s perspective on British Imperialism during the interwar period? What can you tell about his beliefs, ideology and prejudices? 

5)   What are the limitations of this source for understanding this period of history?

Most of my students were quick to decide that the Elephant, slowly dying from the narrator’s gunshot, was the British Empire (a common interpretation of this essay). They also recognized Orwell’s hatred of the empire and all it stood for.

Orwell’s story proved a valuable source in the classroom for several reasons. Firstly, it was of the right length (4 pages) and reading level.  Secondly, Shooting an Elephant gave students an insight into a historical perspective on the British Imperial system in India. It of course does not give students a full understanding of the demise of the British Empire in India, but instead provides students an interesting way to think about historical perspective taking through literature. It also challenged many of students’ perception that most of British colonizers were loyal to the cause of the Empire. 

My questions for others are, do you see value in incorporating literature into the history classroom, and if so, what examples have you found useful?