University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
Resilience in the Face of Pressure
Resilience in the Face of Pressure
While George Orwell gives in to the pressure of his surroundings by committing the violent, shameful action of killing an innocent elephant, Okonkwo instead tries to combat the loss of his culture by showing resilience in the face of conversion to Christianity. However, in both instances, George Orwell and Okonkwo are each pressured by the culture and surroundings of which they inhabit, ultimately leading to forces which even the strongest of men cannot defend themselves against. In Shooting an Elephant, Orwell ultimately shoots the elephant due to the pressure of strangers, the Burmese, proving that he is not strong enough to make his own, conscious decisions. Contrasting this, in Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo dons his warrior armor in preparation not only to "combat" the ongoing loss of his clansmen to Christianity, but also to show that he is faithful not only to himself, but to his culture.
George Orwell undertakes the killing of the elephant to maintain his reputation among the strangers. He ultimately does exactly what they expect of him: he kills the elephant. While Orwell does eventually give in to the pressure that the Burmese set upon him to kill the elephant, he has a self-conscious conflict in the process of concluding that he should shoot the elephant. When Orwell retrieves his rifle, he states that he had no intention of shooting the elephant. The whole process of getting the gun had made him presently uneasy with the whole situation, and the only reason he had the rifle was to defend himself if necessary. In this event, Orwell is conflicted. The animal is innocent, as it had just gone "must" do to a naturally occurring rise in hormone levels. However, in this situation, time is dire, as the mahout had taken the wrong direction in the pursuit of the elephant, therefore it cannot be controlled. Furthermore, the elephant threatens the live of the people in Burma. The Burmese have no weapons and are essentially helpless against the elephant. It had already destroyed someone's bamboo hut, killed a cow, raided fruit-stalls, devoured stock, and damaged a vehicle as well as threatened the life of the driver. Even worse, it had stomped on a man, bringing terror and agony to those around him. For Orwell, seeing the dead man gave him the idea that maybe violence may be applicable in the current situation. Even though the elephant was innocent and unable to be controlled due to its hormones, the threat that the elephant had on the lives of the people of Burma signaled to Orwell that action had to be taken quickly. Orwell writes, "As soon as I saw the dead man, I sent an orderly to a friend's house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle" (Orwell 275). When Orwell first saw the elephant, he knew that he was not going to shoot it. The fact that the elephant was worth as much as a "costly piece of machinery" and that, at the time, it was peacefully eating grass, further pushed forward the idea that he was not going to shoot the elephant if it could be avoided. Orwell also states that the elephant was essentially harmless at the time: "…his attack of "must" was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him" (Orwell 276). Orwell knew that the elephant was not a threat, but once he realized that the crowd had followed him, his intentions changed rather quickly. Two thousand people were watching him, with the gun in his hand. The Burmese people expected him to shoot the elephant, and he felt compelled to do so. Orwell writes, "The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, tramples on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do" (Orwell 277). Orwell's thinking here shows that he was more worried about the thoughts and opinions of complete strangers rather than doing the humane course of action (sparing the elephant). It also highlights how ridiculous Orwell's thinking is when it comes to shooting the elephant, as he is more worried about people laughing at him after his death rather than preserving the life of an innocent animal. Orwell, ultimately, does not show resilience in the face of pressure.
Contrasting Orwell's use of violence to meet the expectations of the Burmese people, Okonkwo uses violence to show his clansmen that he will not give in to the pressure of converting to Christianity, and instead, remain faithful to his culture. Okonkwo has always been a firm believer in the Ibo culture. He even goes as far as to banishing himself due to an honest mistake, showing that he is willing to sacrifice life and fame (regarding his titles) in his own tribe to fulfill the premises of his own culture. Additionally, Okonkwo prepares to fight to protect his clan. After Okonkwo was set free from prison, he swore to get vengeance towards those who abused him. Okonkwo demonstrates resilience even after being held in prison where he was physically abused by the warder. Achebe writes, "Before he had gone to bed he had brought down his war dress, which he had not touched since his return from exile. He had shaken out his smoked raffia skirt and examined his tall feather head-gear and his shield… As he lay on his bamboo bed he thought about the treatment he had received in the white man's court, and he swore vengeance. If Umuofia decided on war, all would be well. But if they chose to be cowards he would go out and avenge himself" (Achebe 199). Okonkwo, in the toughest of situations, continues to demonstrate his strong sense of willpower and resilience against change. After being whipped and physically abused by the warder, Okonkwo is mentally unscathed (as he prepares for vengeance almost immediately). He sets out his warrior garments the night before in preparation of any violence that might come his way, and he is eager to combat the violence to preserve his beliefs and culture. The white men have been shown to be strong, and they may be able to overpower those who fight against them, but Okonkwo is willing to take that risk to show others that he is not weak and will not be deterred from a physical battle. Okonkwo even said that if Umuofia chose to be cowards and not fight the incoming wave of Christian conversion, he would do it by himself. For Okonkwo to be willing to undertake such a massive task all by himself, without any of the aid of his clan, shows that he truly believes in the fact that the Ibo culture is worth fighting for and that he will remain perseverant to any form of conversion put upon him. He does this not only to show his clansmen that the Ibo culture is something worth preserving, but also to give them strength to fight with him. He provides his clansmen with an opportunity to join him, even though many are too scared to do so, further demonstrating his resilience against conversion and his compassion for his clan and culture. Ultimately, Okonkwo ends up committing suicide. While in his culture it is an abomination to do such a horrible thing, in the broader spectrum, the action of committing suicide may be the ultimate feat of resilience. The fact that Okonkwo would end his own life is the ultimate showing of faith. He would rather die than have his culture stripped away from him. Death is one of the scariest things to think about when living, but for Okonkwo to be willing to commit suicide shows that he is, in fact, a faithful man to his culture and resilient altogether.
Overall, Orwell uses violence to please the Burmese, succumbing to the pressure that they set upon him to shoot the elephant. Okonkwo, however, uses violence to show his clansmen that they must be resilient in the face of conversion, and that the values of the Ibo culture are still worth fighting for. Orwell portrays himself as someone who is weak-minded, and not strong enough to resist the action of shooting the elephant to please those who watch. Ultimately, Orwell ends up shooting the elephant because he fears what they will do if he doesn't (either laugh at him if something goes wrong or be disappointed that he didn't shoot the elephant). Okonkwo, however, demonstrates the opposite. He does not give in to what most of his clan does. Instead of leaving the Ibo culture and converting to Christianity, like so many of those Okonkwo knew, Okonkwo does the opposite. He fights to maintain his culture as well as the life he values. After all, Okonkwo has lost so much. The loss of his titles, the loss of his son, Nwoye, to Christianity, the loss of Ikemefuna. These are all examples of what the Ibo culture has directly or indirectly done. But even so, Okonkwo still follows the culture, because it is what he believes in and values, proving his faith and resilience in the face of conversion.