It is Not As Simple As “Shooting an Elephant”
In 1936, George Orwell wrote “Shooting an Elephant.” His popular narrative has been interpreted in many different ways. As Orwell jumps right into the hatred between the British and Burmese people, the story develops into a captivating plot where a wild elephant causing destruction needs to be stopped. Conflicting feelings arise and readers are enthralled with what choices Orwell makes and why he makes them. Through Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell shows how imperialism is a destructive force during British colonization of Burma and how inner struggle of conscience portrays the reasons for Orwell’s actions as well as how he justifies those actions.
Throughout the story, imperialism is highlighted as the key component that shows how the Burmese people were affected. Right from the start, Orwell descriptively describes how people like him, British police officers, were hated by all of the Burmese people. There were no riots, the Burmese people too afraid to show so much as a public rebellion, but Orwell and his fellow companions were bullied by the Burmese: their daily targets (Orwell par. 1). Orwell states: “In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters,” right before giving a frighteningly vivid description of how some of the Burmese people were treated (par. 2). Also to consider, Orwell repeatedly describes the Burmese people as having “yellow faces” (par. 1) and describes where the villagers lived as “a very poor quarter” (par. 4). This is a look into how the people of Burma lived as a result of imperialism. After this, Orwell demonstrates that “feelings are the normal by-products of imperialism”; feelings such as “to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts” (par. 2). Orwell’s feelings towards the Burmese people as a British colonist-due to imperialism, are a mirror to how the Burmese feel about him and his country. Imperialism is important to shaping this narrative and to explaining the impact of choices made by both parties.
In a similar way, inner struggle of conscience is portrayed as the other important theme in “Shooting an Elephant.” Firstly, Orwell secretly hated serving his empire (par. 2), and these inner feelings of hatred affected his personal turmoil and decision making in when he had to shoot the elephant. After learning more about the elephant’s actions, Orwell decided that he had no intention of shooting the elephant (par. 5). But as the story progresses, Orwell’s conscience is put to the test as he is pressured by the crowd of people following him. Orwell felt guilty; he thought that shooting the elephant would be like murder, comparing the elephant to a harmless cow (Orwell par. 8 and 6). Orwell decided to test the animal’s behavior (par. 9), to simply be wary and cautious, when he began to contemplate what would happen if he left the elephant alive. After finally deciding to shoot the elephant, Orwell left before the elephant had died; not being able to stand watching it suffer. Towards the end of the story, inner struggle of conscience is seen again when endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant were going on (Orwell par. 14). Orwell stated that: “legally he had done the right thing,” (par. 14), but within himself, he “often wondered whether any of the others grasped that [he] had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” (par. 14). Orwell’s point of view and the insight into his feelings gives the reader a better understanding of the story.
Imperialism and the inner struggle of conscience are important in understanding Burma. Imperialism shaped the people of Burma into having hard, ruthless, and unforgiving attitudes towards the British. Like cause and effect, imperialism led to the many negative feelings between the two countries and formed future decisions on both sides. The inner struggle of conscience also leads to an understanding of Burma. The people of Burma were not really interested in the man hunting after the elephant until that man held an elephant rifle in his hands (Orwell par. 4). The rifle riled up the crowd, sparking a form of rebellion within them, even though they knew the British had the power and would exercise it on the Burmese when necessary. These two themes are the most important in understanding Burma and its people.
The elephant itself is a symbol of British imperialism and its effect on Orwell and the Burmese people. The elephant was destructive, and in the end was destroyed because of its nature, as was British imperialism in Burma. At first, the elephant seemed to be harmless, and had only destroyed a bamboo hut, killed a cow, and raided some fruit-stalls (Orwell par. 3). But then, the elephant killed a person, revealing how destructive it really was. Orwell compared the elephant to a “costly machine” and “no more dangerous than a cow” (par. 6). But in reality, it caused a lot of damage and even a death—as imperialism did throughout Burmese colonization. Also, as Orwell had been looking for the elephant, people gave different stories on where to find it. This can be seen as the confusion imperialism brought unto the Burmese people as they were forced under rule. Orwell’s inner thoughts about the incident show “the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act” (par. 3). The despotic way of British rule is reflected in the elephant and what lead to its downfall. The painful, tortured death of the elephant is also a slow, unwilling death of British imperialism. After being shot three times, the elephant finally fell, but was still alive. Repeated shots still did not kill it. British imperialism was slow to die in Burma and had a lasting impact. Even so, death of British rule was seen as a rebellious action by the Burmese people. This can be reflected in Orwell’s description of how they stripped the elephant to its bones (Orwell par.13). Just like with British rule in Burma, the Burmese would take what they saw of the thing that had robbed them of their freedom.
In conclusion, “Shooting an Elephant” symbolizes the consequences of the autocratic way the British ruled Burma. Orwell himself had an epiphany of the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East (par. 7). He understood that for all the strength and pressure his native land forced upon other nations, it was all in vain. The power that was shown through “taking care” of the elephant can ironically destroy a country. The elephant’s shooting caused an unending debate of what was right and wrong; varying opinions on what actions should have been taken (Orwell par. 14). Also, through the elephant’s shooting, a stronger insight into Orwell’s character is given. The impending fall of Britain is a representation in the way the elephant is shot and dies. Imperialism and inner struggle reflect the complicated and irreversible history between the British and the Burmese.
- Orwell, George, ‘Shooting an Elephant.’ 1936. Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, Seeker and Warburg, 1950. http://orwell.ru/library/articles/elephant/english/e_eleph. Accessed 16 Sept 2019.
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