“Living Like Weasels” – Annie Dillard
A Rhetorical Analysis
Both these pieces of writing centre around an encounter with an animal, but in each case the author’s real purpose is slightly different than to merely describe their encounters with an elephant, in Orwell’s case, and a weasel, in Dillard’s. Orwell’s true purpose, apart from the inevitable element of self-revelation, which any non-fictional account will probably entail, is to create pathos in the reader, faced with the description of the shooting of the elephant, and to point out the invidious effects of imperialism. Similarly, Dillard’s piece is, in a real sense, not about weasels as such – it is about our philosophy to life and the weasel and Dillard’s encounter with it, are secondary to Dillard’s desire to express her views on the way human life should be lead. This essay will analyse both pieces of writing in terms of the author’s use of rhetorical devices, tone, purpose, and structure. Ultimately, and for a variety of reasons, Dillard’s writing is superior to Orwell’s.
Orwell’s use of figurative language is quite infrequent and rare, which makes it even more important when he does use a rhetorical device. What stands out is a sense of irony throughout the piece. Orwell makes it clear that he is unhappy in his role as a member of the Burmese Imperial Police Forced because he feels ostracized from the local population. One comparison he does use concerns the elephant: “It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.” This comparison stresses the work and money that a working elephant represents – all the time and work that has gone into training it and what it represents now as an important working asset for its owner. The comparison reminds us that the basis of Empire was commercial and financial exploitation. The way Orwell presents himself in this piece of writing is a deliberate rhetorical choice: he presents himself as unhappy, diffident and reluctant to kill the elephant. It therefore becomes very ironic that when the elephant is about to be shot and then is shot that the Burmese crowd find it such an exciting “fun” experience - “the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd”; “The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last”; “They were going to have their bit of fun after all.” Orwell’s criticizes the attitude of the local population, but reluctantly goes ahead with the shooting of the elephant – even though he finds it painful to watch the creature die. He uses the word “fun” to express his disapproval.
Dillard’s writing is richer in terms of her use of rhetorical devices and so the texture of her writing feels much more vibrant and elements of language are foregrounded making them memorable. She uses a combination of assonance and alliteration to make her writing memorable: “Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?” At times she combines such verbal dexterity with figurative language: “It was also a bright blow to the brain, or a sudden beating of brains with all the charge and intimate grate of rubbed balloons.” The final simile here is an attempt to render this extraordinary experience more accessible to her readers. Dillard uses deliberate paradox, as in this example: “I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it.” Her piece of writing is full of rhetorical questions which help the reader share her bewilderment and sense of awe at the encounter with the weasel: “Who knows what he thinks?”; “What goes on in his brain the rest of the time?”; “What does a weasel think about?”. These particular questions are unanswerable and unusual, and point to the unorthodox way that Dillard’s writing develops towards the end. By contrast, Orwell is far less open about his doubts about the British Empire. The fourth section of Dillard’s essay, is where she baldly expresses the essay’s central idea – “I would like to learn or remember, how to live.” (100). This paragraph contains, three notable rhetorical devices. The first two sentences, imply a sense of irony, as she first writes, “I would like to learn, or remember, how to live,”, follow by the rather intriguing sand paradoxical statement: “I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it”. The second device is the use of parallelism in the second section; “The weasel was stunned into stillness as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness twisted backward on the tree trunk” (99) Both Dillard herself and the weasel are “stunned into stillness” at the moment when their eyes spot one another. By creating these parallel images, Dillard wants to present the weasel in a relatively high standing with herself, as an equal at that moment in time. However, the phrases that follow “emerging from beneath” and “twisted backward” are also significant because they are intentionally placed there to serve the idea of duality between two living things, but also the close connection between them. The weasel is characterized as a courageous, insignificant actor, who’s becoming apparent from its hidden ground, whereas, Dillard is characterized as the main actor who has been somewhat distorted and defeated, resulted in her backward movement towards the tree. These images are used to interrupt the readers’ logical idea about themselves and the weasels, because we don’t usually see ourselves defeated, while the animal wins, so to speak. This parallelism is perfectly used to carry out the purpose of the essay, which is to make distinction between the mindlessness weasel who lives in necessity and by instinct, and the human who has choices and who lives and acts with self-consciousness and fore-thought. The parallelism in language that Dillard frequently uses reflects her admiration for the weasel and her desire to share some of the weasels’ characteristics. “I was looking down at a weasel, who was looking up at me.” This sentence implies total equality between Dillard and the weasel.
Orwell’s tone is slightly distanced and analytical. He is honest about his emotions but his tone reflects the diffidence of a man forced into a situation where he is forced to do something he does not want to do and is working in a job that he does not like and, in fact, morally disapproves of. As such his tone is gloomy and pessimistic. Mis natural sympathies are with the native Burmese and yet he disapproves of their excitement and attitude to the shooting of the elephant; he disapproves of the British Empire, but is acting as an officer of it. Thus his tone is slightly melancholy amd morose throughout the entire essay. His unhappiness at his life and occupation shines through.
The structure of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” is chronological. It stars at the beginning of events and then follows them through time until the end of the incident – or, at least, where Orwell chooses to stop describing or reflecting on the incident. Orwell describes and narrates, but engages until little reflection and the structure is not especially intriguing or interesting – if it is, our main motivation is to find out what happened to the elephant and Orwell’s response to the situation. His opening statement is intriguing, however: “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people,” but, in contrast to Dillard, he reveals his attitude to his situation at the start of the second paragraph: “I had already made up my mind that Imperialism was an evil thing,” so there is no suspense created for the reader.
Orwell’s purpose is simple, I feel: it is to expose the hypocrisy of imperialism and to describe an incident which helped him understand the iniquities of the British Empire. It could be argued that he achieves his purpose admirably and that even his melancholic tone (which I implicitly criticized above) helps convey his message that imperialism distorts relationships between people.
Dillard’s purpose is more ambitious than Orwell’s, I feel. It is to make us stop and reflect on how we live and to modify our lives – to be more like weasels! Her purpose is served by the structure of her essay: its non-linear structure gradually introduces us to an unorthodox idea which we might have rejected had she started with it. Her magical, mystical, life-changing encounter with the weasel is given prominence by being referred to early on, but not being fully described until much later – again allowing the reader to grant it more credibility and credence. In the final analysis, Dillard’s essay is more ambitious than Orwell’s’ since she is attempting to make us re-assess our lives and our attitudes to living. She is urging us to seize the moment, like the weasel, and follow our instincts rather than be constantly worried about memories of the past and fears and speculation about the future.
I would argue that Orwell’s essay is a fine piece of reportage, a snapshot of an individual in a specific time and place, torn between his natural instincts and the necessity of doing his duty, according to his job. By contrast, Dillard’s essay is livelier, better written and becomes, by the end, a recipe for living life to the full. It is more profound and manipulates rhetorical devices and structure more effectively so that Dillard’s essay is superior to Orwell’s in a variety of ways.
Dillard, Annie. “Living Like Weasels.” 1988. Web.
Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” 1936. Web.