University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
The Violence of Man
The Violence of Man
In both "To Kill an Elephant", and Things Fall Apart, the main characters are portrayed very unsympathetically through their violent actions, as a result of their underlying weaknesses. Okonkwo and George Orwell are both characters who use violence to hide their weakness and show themselves as powerful men. They take this anger out on others instead of owning up to their insecurity, in turn hurting the people and animals around them. Falling victim to the violent tendencies of their cultures, both Okonkwo and George Orwell become exactly what others expect them to be.
Okonkwo is a character that is incapable of feeling empathy towards other and will not let himself feel and look weak or womanly. This is in part to his growing up being in an extremely patriarchal society, where women are seen to be as week as peasants. On the other hand, his father contradicted this idea, not believing that men had to be bloodthirsty worriers. He instead spent his life as a musician and a pacifist. The biggest thing that led him down this path of complete violence is his distaste towards his father's passiveness and "lack of manhood". Okonkwo spent his entire life to prove himself "better" than his father. He felt he needed to do this because his father didn't fit into the societal norms and was almost the opposite of what a "man" should be. In Okonkwo's eyes Ibo men are supposed to be strong and powerful; the main way Okonkwo shows his power is through violence. Specifically, it is shown by the act of him beating his wife's ruthlessly, "He walked back to his obi to await Ojiugo's return. And when she returned, he beat her very heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess." (Achebe 29) Okonkwo takes his violence out on the people closest to him, his wives, children, and friends. He has no regard for who it is, all he cares about is showing his power over them. Okonkwo conveys a sense of shoot first, ask questions later, when he speaks about carrying weapons anywhere and everywhere. He thinks people should constantly be on guards and use violence as a first resort in case of conflict. This is due to his life experiences, including him being a warrior for the Ibo and there being instances of the Ibo tribe being attacked. Okonkwo's need for power and in turn violence makes him extremely unsympathetic, because of the amount of people he hurt.
George Orwell in "Shooting an Elephant" is an easily manipulated man who quickly falls victim to the will of others. Along with his tendency to care too much about other's perception of himself, he is a racist man who cares little about the lives of people that are "lower" than him. Orwell writes, "He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked." (Orwell George 274) This description of the man who was killed by the elephant, shows Orwell's bias towards the Burmese people, and people who are different towards himself. Orwell being a white, English man who came to Burma for work, his discrimination is believable but should not be overlooked. His is a big contributor to his unsympathetic characterization. Orwell's task in Burma is the act of killing an escaped elephant. This action goes against Orwell's morals as he isn't an avid hunter and is against the idea of killing an animal who escaped most likely to human error. The Burmese people on the other hand had no opposition to killing the elephant. They would use the meat and all parts of the animal, and most of them even wanted it dead. "The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled 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). One of the reasons he was so against being laughed at by the Burmese, was because he thought so little of them. If people he believed were below him laughed at hi his ego could not take it. The Burmese people's desire to have the animal dead caused internal conflict for Orwell, putting him in between the wants and ideals of the natives, and his own values. Orwell's idiotic motivations lead him to be less worried with right and wrong, and more worried about his own pride in reputation. This leads to him carrying out actions he, himself is not ok with.
The effects of both Okonkwo's and Orwell's internal weakness had the same result, death. In Okonkwo's case it was the death of Ikemefuna and himself. Ikemefuna's death came when Okonkwo became bound to societal rules, having to do with adoption. Since Ikemefuna was not actually part of the tribe, there was possibility that he was a spy. Because of this Okonkwo was forced to kill him to keep his status. His own death came when everything he stood for and the ideas, he believed were true began to fall apart around him. This left him in a state of dismay as even his true son left him for Christianity, a belief Okonkwo was extremely against. As his loss of power and internal struggle with right and wrong got the better of him, he took his life in an act of weakness. He would rather die than live his life in a place without power and control of others. The result in "To Kill an Elephant" is similar, as Orwell has to go against what he believes is right and take the life of something else. He falls victim to the pressure of the Burmese people, in turn putting them over himself in a showing of extreme weakness. Though he looks down on the Burmese, in the end, it is them who are controlling him.
The overarching theme in the books is the same, the loss of power through weakness in the form of violence towards themselves or others. More specifically for "To Kill an Elephant" Orwell writes it out, "When the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys" (Orwell 273). This is a perfect representation of what happens in both books, the two main characters do all they can to increase their power and image. When this in turn works, they are in a state of limbo, not knowing what to do next. Do they preserve their self-worth? Or do they throw it all out the window in the pursuit for more? They both pick the second option, choosing others over themselves in a bad way, allowing themselves to be controlled. They would rather do what they know is wrong, and others respect them for it, than do what they know is right and be ridiculed.
In both works of literature the main characters are portrayed as very unsympathetic due to their violent actions as a result of weakness. The result of this weakness is the death of people and animals, and the loss of themselves in the prosses. In turn the opposite of what is wanted by Okonkwo and Orwell happens, as they lose all their power to others. Both stories are examples of the destruction of violence when people let themselves be controlled by others. The result is never good, and it can be a teaching moment for readers of the book. That the wants and ideas of others are not always right, and that they control their own life's not others.