Orwell: Shooting an Elephant - A semiotic approach

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0




The semiotic square

Analysing “Shooting an Elephant”




In 1936 George Orwell wrote an essay with the title “Shooting an Elephant”. It describes a little incident that had happened during Orwell’s time as a police officer in Burma around 1926. In the essay the narrator, a “sub-divisional police officer of the town”[1] Moulmein in Lower Burma, is called upon to kill an elephant that allegedly has gone haywire. The narrator meets with the conflict of what is expected of him, which differs from what he finds, would be the right thing to do. He decides to obey the (cultural) rules – that is to do his duties and please the expectations of the mob of about “two thousand Burmans”[2] who are the spectators of the scene. Nonetheless, his decision to kill the elephant, though cheered over by the crowd, seems to leave the protagonist with doubts. It is even brought to a bitter ridicule when the elephant dies painfully and not instantaneous upon the shooting.

The essay deals indirectly with the presence of the British colonisers in Burma and the imperialist implications as reinstated by the text. Although British himself, one of the narrator’s conflict lies in the disliking of his imperialistic country of origin and what it stands for respectively. The narrator introduces the anecdote with what seems like a prologue and in it he describes at first the feelings of the `natives` and further down his own feelings:

‘[A]t 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. Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.’[3]

Nonetheless, he decides to follow through and do his job thereby reaffirming the idea of the imperial (male/white) coloniser ruling over the colonised and protecting them.[4]

Orwell most probably chose the form essay to express and analyse his feelings about the imperial attitude of his home country. However, due to the narrative structure of the text – it has a plot and characters – it seems more like a fictitious story (a short story in fact) rather than an essay[5]. Nevertheless, it can be seen as an essay since essay by definition has a free form. This free form then in turn supports the ideas of freedom from oppression be it an aggressive oppression as in the case of the elephant and the colonisation or a more tacit one as in the case of the narrator’s oppression by the crowd which he has to endure in order to keep thee respect of the crows. However, due to the form we can approach the text with both a literal as well as socio-scientific analysis.

In this paper we will not mainly focus on an interpretation of the plot of “Shooting an Elephant”, but we will rather explore how the elements of the text and hypertexts (such as the narrator and the elephant as well as imperialism) are related and set in opposition to each other within the text. We will basically concentrate on the differences between 4 main carriers of meaning in “Shooting an Elephant” and how these differences differ themselves depending on their constellation to each other. For that we will explore their contradictory as well as their contrary relations to each other. Moreover, we will explore how the central themes dealt with in “Shooting an Elephant” derive from these constellations and how the text transports the ideas of imperialism rooted in the language and especially in the narrative structure which reinforces the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

In order to substantiate our findings, we will employ a method called the semiotic square developed by Algirdas Greimas. It will help us to develop the inherent and underlying organisation of this essay through its acting elements and ordering principles. The semiotic square is a tool originating from the text and discourse analysis and as such it hails from structuralism and poststructuralism. Authors such as Frederic Jameson[6] have frequently used it to determine how meaning is not only reproduced, but also transmitted through and by a text. Especially transformations from one form of society to another have been realised in narrative texts such as novels or later films. The semiotic square helps to detect these structural embeddings in the text.

Consequently, the structure of the current analysis will be as follows: First, we will give a brief but sufficient introduction to the semiotic square. Thereafter, we will apply it to “Shooting an Elephant” in order to create a meaningful construct to work with it. Subsequently, we will evaluate the findings and interpret the structure of the second generation categories[7] found by the square. Finally, in the conclusion we will summarize the points made throughout this essay.

Due to the limitedness that arises out of the circumstances that come along with papers like this, we are limited as well in many aspects and can often only touch the surface of certain issues. However, we will look closely at the main points that led us to write this paper.

Michael Reichmann, September 2003

The semiotic square

In his book Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary from 1979, Algirdas Greimas introduces the semiotic square[8] a method based on ‘the structural principle laid down by F. de Saussure, according to which “in language there are only differences….”’[9] This method is designed to visualize the logical articulation of any semantic category[10] by the relation between at least two terms and their negations. Greimas takes two binary relations suggested by F. Jacobson:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

‘[…] the first, of the type A/Ā, characterized by the resultant opposition of presence and absence of a definite trait, and the second, of the type A/non-A, which manifests to some extend the same trait, present twice in different forms. On the basis of this knowledge, the result of linguistic doing, it has been possible to establish a typology of intercategorial relations.’[11]

Thus, one starts with the two terms A and non-A of which needs to be determined whether they belong to one semantic category. Each of the terms, however, can separately enter into a second relation of the type A/Ā creating thus a basic square such as shown below:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The dynamic processes involved in finding the terms are seen as operations. This square is in no way – as it may seem – static. Thereby, the relation of the type A/Ā is that of a contradiction. In terms of operation, however, it is rather a negation carried out on either of the basic terms A/non-A situated on the chosen semantic axis[12]. The newly found terms Ā and non-Ā are terms of the first generation of categorical terms. The second operation, which can be presented as an implication, is then carried out on these very terms of the first generation. This implication, namely, creates a relation of complementary between the terms Ā and non-A as well as between the terms non-Ā and A so that non-Ā implicates A and similarly Ā implicates non-A. If thus all two implications can be said to be true then those terms from the beginning, which Greimas called primitive terms (A and non-A), can be said to belong to one semantic category and are thus in a contrary relation. Having established that we can now present the semiotic square in its entirety:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Due to the operational character of this method the square becomes somewhat dynamic and should actually be depicted as a spiral. The terms we use in the beginning, the primitive terms, seem to change once the implication has been made and thus the circle (or rather square) begins anew with ever-changing terms. Thus, one is actually always one step behind an ever-withdrawing sense.

‘The semiotic square is thus not static but dynamic: the significance of positionality within it is only one index of the way in which it can just as easily be considered to map a temporal process to register a conceptual blockage of paralysis; indeed the latter can most often be grasped as the very situation that motivates the former, namely, the attempt, by rotating the square and generating its implicit positions, to find one’s way out of the conceptual or ideological closure, out of the old or given – into which one is locked – somehow desperately to generate the novelty of the event, or of breakthrough, or of the Novum.’[13]

The term that is generated through the negation of the negation (here S’2), though, is usually the one that is hardest to find and holds, as Jameson states, a special position within the square:

‘A final warning must be directed to the peculiar nature of the fourth term, the negation of the negation: S’2. This must be (when the operation is successful) the place of the novelty and of paradoxical emergence: It is always the most critical position and the one that remains open for the longest time, for its identification completes the process and in that sense constitutes the most creative act of construction.’[14]

The negation of the negation is thus an ambiguous term which on the one side ‘catches’ the meaning holding, thus, the square together; and on the other side, shows that meaning is something that eludes us infinitely and opens the square to a spiral changing the primitive terms over and over again. However, going back to the Saussurean notion of differences, the terms at the ends of the positive and negative deixis as well as those at the end of the two axes are each equally determined by the particular partner term. The terms that derive from those differences are according to Greimas the second-generation categorical terms. Those meta-terms name the category of the sub-terms. Thereby, the meta-terms of the two axes are in a contradictory relation whereas those of the deixes are in a contrary relation.


[1] Orwell 1961, p. 15.

[2] Orwell 1961, p. 21.

[3] Orwell 1961, p. 15.

[4] Stansky, Abrahams 1972 p. 166ff.

[5] Thus throughout the paper we will use story and essay as synonyms for “Shooting an Elephant.”

[6] See Jameson 1991, p.9-10 and 279-296.

[7] I will give a more precise explanation of the generations of categories in the first part.

[8] Sometimes also called semiotic rectangle, for instance by Jameson.

[9] Greimas 1982 [1979].

[10] Gender would be an example of a semantic category and male and female would be the opposing elements belonging to this category.

[11] Greimas 1982 [1979].

[12] Semantic axis is the axis where there are situated those terms to be determined as belonging to on semantic category (in our case A/non-A).

[13] Jameson 1987, xvi-xvii.

[14] Ibid.

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Orwell: Shooting an Elephant - A semiotic approach
University of Hamburg  (IAA)
Seminar II: “George Orwell, the English and the Empire”
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Orwell, Shooting, Elephant, Seminar, Orwell, English, Empire”
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Michael Reichmann (Author), 2003, Orwell: Shooting an Elephant - A semiotic approach, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/39478


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