University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
The Essence of Freedom
The Essence of Freedom
In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, a well-respected man, hangs himself because he fails to rally the residents of Umuofia to fight against the Christian missionaries. Similarly, in "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell must kill an elephant because it has ravaged the town and has even killed a bystander. Although there are superficial similarities between Okonkwo and Orwell, namely that they perform violent and shameful acts in their communities and they fail to carry out the moral decision — refraining from killing the head messenger in Okonkwo's case and from killing the elephant in Orwell's case, ultimately their situations contrast each other. Okonkwo and Orwell are different to one another through the recognition of the loss of their values and the amount of power in their communities; in this way Okonkwo gains his own freedom and Orwell loses his own freedom.
Through their actions, Okonkwo and Orwell recall the loss of their differing values. Okonkwo loses his patriarchy after Nwoye takes up interest in Christianity. When Nwoye returns home one night, Okonkwo grips him on the neck and orders him to state where he has been, but Uchendu makes him let go, and Nwoye leaves. As Okonkwo lies in his hut, he ponders over his son: "A sudden fury rose within him and he felt a strong desire to take up his machete, go to the church and wipe out the entire vile and miscreant gang. But on further thought he told himself that Nwoye was not worth fighting for. Why… should he, Okonkwo, of all people, be cursed with such a son?" (Achebe 152). Okonkwo wonders why he, a flaming fire famous for his wrestling and his fearlessness, begets a child with the characteristics of cold, impotent ash: degenerate and effeminate. Through his beliefs in preserving a family's culture, he is the cause of Nwoye's departure because of his brutality and outdated practices. Okonkwo loses his role as a patriarch because it helps demolish the Ibo community from the inside out. Orwell, on the other hand, indirectly loses his free will. During the encounter with the elephant, Orwell makes multiple remarks about his inferiority, even though he is the white man with the gun: "I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind…. [The white man] becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib…. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it" (Achebe 276). Orwell notes that he has no choice than to kill the elephant because he brings his rifle, and the onlookers expect to see the death of the elephant at a white man's hands. Many would say that the white men control the Burmese, and although that may have been true during the first years of colonization, Orwell states that he is controlled by the Burmese, who now anticipate white men to act immorally, and that he must conform to their will at his own expense. On account of their actions, Okonkwo no longer has his former status and Orwell loses his free will and gives in to peer pressure.
Okonkwo's and Orwell's actions also prove the amount of power they truly have now in their communities. Okonkwo realizes his powerlessness in his community when he fails to rally the residents of Umuofia. Okonkwo's power diminishes after he returns to Umuofia, including the loss of his role as one of the nine egwugwu and the chance to obtain the highest titles, but he is determined to regain his power. In Umuofia, on the night before the meeting, Okonkwo gathers his smoked raffia skirt, his tall feather headgear, and his shield, which were his war clothes. As he lies in bed, he thinks that if Umuofia chose war, then all would be well, but if they didn't, then Okonkwo would fight alone. Okonkwo aims to reestablish his pride and patriarchal status in Umuofia after his exile through violence. During the meeting, however, he loses the chance to regain his former status. As Okika, one of the six men who was imprisoned, rallies the clansmen to go to war with the colonists, the five court messengers arrive and order the clansmen to disband. In an outrage, Okonkwo draws his machete and beheads the head messenger. The audience then panics, and Okonkwo thinks about his action: "Okonkwo stood looking at the dead man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers flee. They had broken into tumult instead of action. He discerned fright in that tumult. He heard voices asking: 'Why did he do it?'" (Achebe 205). Okonkwo fails to help rally the residents of Umuofia to revolt against the Christian missionaries because the missionaries are able to run away and report back to the District Commissioner after Okonkwo beheads the head messenger. What Okonkwo thinks will reunite the clan will in fact destroy the clan; once the District Commissioner hears about Okonkwo's action, he will inflict harsher punishments on the people of Umuofia, including annihilating their homes and culture. Okonkwo doesn't regain his power, whereas when Orwell commits to shooting the elephant, he preserves his power. As he readies himself to kill the elephant, he thinks about what he must do: "A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me" (Achebe 276). Orwell knows that if he continues to renege on his actions, then he will lose the Burmese' trust, and eventually he will be called a coward or be publicly shamed for not pertaining to the white man's way. If other white men see the Burmese harassing one of their own, then the white men could retaliate, leading to a civil war. Furthermore, before Orwell arrives at the paddy fields, he thinks:
"I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British…. 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. With one part of my mind, I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum upon the will of prostrate peoples" (Orwell 273)
Even though sometimes he wishes ill upon the Burmese, he sympathizes with their struggles against British suppression. Orwell decides not to aggravate the Burmese and instead kills the elephant because he doesn't want to risk his or their lives; by shooting the elephant and doing what the Burmese expect him to do, he keeps the peace between the Burmese and the British and maintains the illusion that he has power over the Burmese. While Okonkwo loses his power, Orwell keeps his power.
As a result of their violent and shameful acts, Okonkwo gains his freedom and Orwell succumbs to the loss of freedom in their communities. When Okonkwo hangs himself, he tries to maintain what little of his values he has left by setting himself apart from the "women," or those who would not go to war with the Christians. Knowing that the village elders will strive to preserve their culture while their children will pursue a new religion, he realizes that Africa has fallen apart, and so he gains freedom by breaking the chains of his own culture. Orwell keeps within his community by carrying out their unsaid will, just as how a puppet carries out the puppeteer's commands. Even though the British should have power over the Burmese, over time the power has shifted in the Burmese' favor. Restrained by the desires of the Burmese, Orwell loses his freedom.