Sunday, 10 April 2011

"Shooting the Elephant" vs. "The 'Values' Wasteland"

"Shooting the Elephant" by George Orwell and "The 'Values Wasteland" by Charles Sykes

          “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it” (Orwell 151), says George Orwell in his personal narrative essay Shooting an Elephant.  This topic is the focus in his biographical piece as well as in Charles Skyes’ formal persuasive essay The “Values” Wasteland.   While both essays are explicit in the presentation of their themes, the common issue—the disregard of a universal morality for the sake of self-gratification—is discussed in very different ways by each writer.  Orwell’s approach,  which is more effective,  reveals his theme throughout the course of a well-told story, whereas Skyes builds an argument on evidence obtained from studies and surveys about the issue.

Orwell, speaking to an general, intellectual audience (one that would read a compilation of essays, such as where Shooting an Elephant is found) weaves his theme into a narrative, putting focus on his encounter with an elephant and letting the events of the story act as evidence to his arguments.  This becomes a strong appeal to logos and ethos, because as Orwell describes the events he also describes the logical conclusions that can be made from them about human nature, such as the parallel of the elephant’s rampage to the British oppression of the Burmese.  The narrative format with its conflict and vivid imagery creates a suspenseful and eventually tragic tone that Orwell’s audience can relate to emotionally.  An example of this is the fall of the elephant: “He trumpeted, for the first and last time.  And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground” (Orwell 153).  In this sentence Orwell captures the majesty of the beast with the image of “trumpeting” and “shaking the ground—a strong appeal to pathos.  Orwell maintains simple syntax and language throughout the essay and focuses on telling a story, which for his general audience is a very appealing structure.

The “Values” Wasteland targets an educated audience of parents, teachers and education workers, and anyone concerned with the development of youth.  Skyes appeals to logos with the inclusion of anecdotes recounting shocking surveys and stories that highlight ethical issues.  The essay’s tone implies the writers frustration and concern towards his topic, which while offering a small appeal to ethos sacrifices a clear, focused structure which makes it difficult at times to even be sure of what side Skyes is arguing.  In paragraph 9, for example, he condemns the old Clarifiers curriculum’s “subtle inculcation of the adults’ values upon the young” as “authoritarian and stifling, but also dangerous to the ethical health of children (Skyes 201)”.  Later in the paragraph, he criticizes the new curriculum, and how “its goal was empowering youngsters to make their own decisions, whatever the decisions were…”.  When the argument becomes clear, Skyes’ essay relies very heavily on anecdotes and information from other sources.  While these provide a “shock factor” for the reader, it gives the feeling that Skyes’ writing is there to supplement the evidence, and not vice-versa.

Skyes argues that young people are very affected by “society’s shift from a culture of self-control to one of self-gratification, self-actualization, and self-realization” (198-199), which leads to an undeveloped sense of morality.  His inductive reasoning is not as convincing as the deductive reasoning of Orwell, who formed his thesis of off of observation and experience.  In structure as well as appeal, Orwell’s essay is more powerful and delivers a simpler, stronger message, that in a moral dilemma, a person “becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib”, making decisions “solely to avoid looking a fool” (Orwell 153).

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