Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’

Subject: Political
Type: Analytical Essay
Pages: 5
Word count: 1335
Topics: Book, Community, Government, Imperialism

George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” is an illustration of how the powerful manipulates the frail individuals in the society for their gain. The narrative tells a story about the evil nature that is bestowed upon imperialism. Orwell’s narrative gives an encounter with the people of Burma with a central intention to establish an argument. Orwell argues the positions of the elephant and the British officer as the main characters in the story. The use of the British officer and the elephant in the narrative are indicative of symbolism to imply an imperial nation and the victim respectively. The Burma community strives as much as they can to manipulate the British officer to give in to their demands of shooting the elephant. The perspective, in this instance is the misuse of the authority to do what does not benefit a country but rather damages its reputation. Orwell demonstrates his beliefs of imperialism and why he is focused on changing it to enhance its coexistence using the narrative of shooting the elephant.

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Orwell’s narrative is sensitive to hatred that is evident among the Burma people towards the British officer. Amazingly, it is the same person they detest who they depend on to help them kill the elephant as they do not have the weapons to do it.  Orwell (1) notes, “The Burmese population never had weapons and were helpless against the elephant.” Clearly, the Burma people entirely used manipulation and suppression to get what they wanted. In this case, the natives are compelled to depend on foreigners for help, an indication of imperialism. In essence, imperialism is an intense subject as it segregates people and classifies them based on race such that others are more superior to others. The officer’s intention was not to kill the elephant but rather the authority. The Burmese population followed and led him towards the location of the elephant just to have their share. Their failure to consider the perception of the British officer towards killing the elephant indicates a selfish population that stops at nothing to achieve what it wants.

The Burmese people had high expectations of the British officer according to Orwell. While they had their own ideals, they could not allow Orwell to uphold his and instead applied force to ensure he kills the elephant. Orwell (3) indicates that “I had no intention of shooting the elephant. I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary.” The phrase portrays the concerned nature of the British officer over the elephant that was facing danger. Certainly, the British officer was held hostage by the Burma population and would be released as soon as he fulfilled their demands.   Orwell (4) states that “He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.” This makes clear the impact that imperialism has on a country that is under the authority of another country. The death of the elephant upon shooting shows the extent that foreign countries can go just to save a country despite the resistance of the country’s inhabitants.

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Orwell does not only write about his personal encounter with the elephant but also the metaphorical context of his experience towards imperialism including his views. He portrays hostile feelings towards imperialism, the British along with their rationale for taking over Burma. The mood in the narrative is set in a stuffy morning with clouds as the rains commence. This in turn sets Orwell’s tone in his speech, which appears to be discomforting and weak. Having already established and understood his weak character, Orwell proceeds to introduce the Burma people in terms of their laughter and mockery towards the British officer.  The cooperation of the Burmese people to find the elephant portrays a metaphorical context whereby destructive power is associated with imperialism. Furthermore, the rampaging spree in search of the elephant caused destruction to homes, death of a man and damaged food shelves all of which indicate Orwell’s intolerable agony.  Upon getting the elephant, Orwell (2) states that “I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him.” However, the Burma people behind him compelled him to change his standpoint to saying “but I did not want to shoot the elephant.” The narrative provides readers with Orwell’s perspective on the guilt and immorality that is associated with shooting the elephant.  Although there were many reasons to avoid shooting the elephant such as its worth that is more when it is alive than dead, the officer had to adhere to the prospects of the Burma people. Therefore, he acted out of his moral belief and will to kill the elephant.

The death of the elephant is a metaphor that indicates British imperialism and its impact on Burma people. Notably, Burma was initially a free kingdom until the interference of the British with suggestions of expansion. Orwell compares himself to a magician who is preparing to perform a trick or rather a lead actor. He goes on to compare himself to a dummy, a disguised individual and absurd puppet. By taking the ‘magic rifle,’ the Burmans had great expectations of having the officer kill the elephant (Orwell 3). Despite being a white, which is an indication of authority, it was more expected for him to do it. Orwell brings the reader to the realization of the actual position of the whites based in the East along with the negative impact of imperialism not just to the victims but to the oppressors as well.   Further, Orwell brings into perspective how the white man became an oppressor yet it was a means to destroying their freedom.  Therefore, being white implies the need to constantly impress the native Burma people and do what they expect. Moreover, the natives have entire control over the white man. Orwell notices the need to complete his task, what is expected of him and perform definite things as required by the natives. He finds that his rule in Burma renders him a victim rather than the authority. As a result, it is the Burmese expectations of what needs to be done using the power of those claiming to be in authority to compel the white man to do what they want.

In the narrative, Orwell mentions himself as an actor while the Burman crowd surrounding him is the audience. The use of this image is depicted when he takes aim of the elephant’s head to shoot it.  Orwell’s description of the feeling is comparable to the final opening of theater curtains to spectators who have waited for so long.  There are many comparisons in the narrative whose aim is to demonstrate Orwell’s weakness of character.  Furthermore, he is put under the control of the Burman and compelled to constantly wear a mask and take the role of a powerful white man (Orwell 3).  The several examples he uses throughout the narrative suggests the aspect of a double edged sword associated with imperialism and its overall bad effect on everyone. Orwell uses denotations and connotations especially when he refers to the huge crowd of the Burma people as ‘an army of people.’ The army, in this case, does not just give a military perception to the reader but also an indication to compel Orwell to change his beliefs.

In conclusion, Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is a great combination of political opinion and personal experience.  Therefore, the transitions that are evident between the actual story and the narration are so slight that the flow is not interrupted. Despite pointing out peer pressure, Orwell indicates the extent of the dilemma when people expect certain people to perform certain actions against their will. Evidently, humans are easily influenced as Orwell shows the imperialistic impacts on both sides. Orwell demonstrates this by acting as a victim when he is supposed to represent a higher power. Therefore, Orwell emphasizes that it is a tragedy when human beings do certain things with intentions to avoid resembling a fool.

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  1. Orwell, George. Shooting an elephant. New Canadian Library, 1936.
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