Homework Help

What is the thesis of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant"?

user profile pic

trees2010 | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted September 30, 2010 at 6:02 AM via web

dislike 1 like

What is the thesis of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant"?

7 Answers | Add Yours

user profile pic

Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted September 30, 2010 at 1:10 PM (Answer #1)

dislike 2 like

Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," is an essay, so it does contain a thesis.  Orwell's thesis is that when a white man becomes a tyrant, it is his own freedom that he loses.

In the essay, Orwell demonstrates how he loses his freedom to behave intelligently and morally.  He does not want to needlessly kill the elephant, and he strongly suspects that the young elephant's must is waning.  The elephant is not in proximity to any people and appears to have settled down.  The animal is valuable to its owner and cannot really be blamed for the damage it's done.

It is unreasonable to kill the creature needlessly.  But Orwell has no choice.  He is in a position of authority over the local people and cannot allow himself to be seen as hesitant or weak or foolish.  Because of his position as "tyrant," he must kill the elephant. 

As a representative of the tyrannical colonial power, England, he has no choice.  As a white man who has become a tyrant in Burma, he has lost his own freedom. 

Though no records exist of Orwell ever having shot an elephant, and though some commentators have speculated that Orwell fudged a little on the details, "Shooting an Elephant" was intended as a nonfiction essay and continues to be regarded as such.  It is a powerful indictment of the colonial system that Orwell, regrettably he himself says, was a part of. 

Incidentally, the essay reveals another byproduct of colonialism--Orwell's hatred of a people that he otherwise would have felt no disdain for.  In response to the Burmese resentment of him, he develops a strong dislike for them.

user profile pic

epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

Posted January 24, 2010 at 6:41 PM (Answer #1)

dislike 1 like

anjames1989,

Orwell's widely anthologized non-fiction essay "Shooting an Elephant" has an implied thesis: “Imperialistic rulers must behave so as not to lose face or power over the populace, even if it means doing something against their better judgment.”

Orwell felt pressured by the people, almost overwhelmed by their power over him through their mere presence. In theory, he explains at the start of the selection, he “was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” (2). But, in reality, Orwell says, he felt the common people of the country were “evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible” (2).

During the shooting incident the people were “happy and excited,” and they watched him “as they would a conjurer about to perform a trick.” He resentfully saw himself as having to spend his life “trying to impress the ‘natives’” (7). He reports later that, as he fired a shot, the crowd emitted a “devilish roar of glee” (11). His choice of words shows that he resented and disliked the Burmese.

Orwell shoots the elephant because the two thousand native people standing behind him expect him to. They want vengeance for the man it killed, the meat the carcass will provide, and the entertainment of watching the shooting. “The people expected it of me and I had got to do it” (7), he writes. There is an implication that if he decided not to shoot the elephant, both he and the British empire would suffer a loss of prestige, but the main concern in Orwell’s mind is the “long struggle not to be laughed at” (7). He is even afraid to “test” the animal’s mood by going closer for fear it might attack and kill him before he could shoot, thus giving the crowd a sight it would enjoy as much as the slaughter of the beast.

Despotic governments result from the need to maintain power over subtly resistant people. Such a government can rule only by fulfilling the people’s expectations and responding to every crisis with the expected force. Orwell points to the irony that he stood armed in front of an unarmed crowd, yet he was powerless to do as he wished or as his judgment told him. Instead, he felt himself “an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind” (7).

user profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted January 24, 2010 at 10:29 PM (Answer #2)

dislike 1 like

To me, the thesis and main point of Orwell's essay is that imperialism is bad.  He argues that it is bad for the ruling people and he argues that it is bad for the people who are ruled.

Orwell shows in the beginning of the essay how colonialism degrades the colonized people.  They come to hate the colonizers so much that they will spit on them out of spite whenever they get the chance.  Orwell feels that this sort of fairly inhuman behavior would not happen without colonialism.

Orwell also shows that the colonizers come to hate the people they rule.  They hate them, in part, because the people force the colonizers to do things (like shooting the elephant) that they do not want to do.

Imperialism, to Orwell, causes both the rulers and the ruled to lose their dignity and their integrity.

user profile pic

susan3smith | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

Posted September 30, 2010 at 6:27 AM (Answer #2)

dislike 1 like

I'm assuming that you mean theme rather than thesis.  One these of Orwell's short story "Shooting an Elephant" is the effect of the masses on the individual.  The narrator of the story shoots and kills an elephant that is no no longer dangerous to the Burmese village.  He kills the elephant because he does not want to appear a fool in front of a crowd of Burmese, numbering in the thousands. 

If you dig a little deeper, though, you will see that Orwell is showing us the effects of imperialism.  When a powerful nation exploits the people of another country, the resulting tension causes everyone to become somewhat savage.  The narrator is a British police officer, and even though he sympathicizes with the plight of the Burmese, he despises their contempt for him, as a representative of the British empire. 

These themes can be turned into strong thesis statements for an essay. 

user profile pic

bmadnick | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted June 6, 2007 at 5:50 AM (Answer #1)

dislike 0 like

A thesis statement is developed from a theme, a conflict, or other literary elements of a written work. A thesis statement is the general topic of an essay. You then use a specific piece of literature to write about that general topic. A theme is the author's message about life, people, or the human condition. A piece of literature can have more than one theme, even though it usually has a main theme.

The most obvious theme in Shooting an Elephant deals with the culture clash between the British and the Burmese, and the prejudice and lack of tolerance that results from this culture clash. The Burmese hate the British for trying to impose their rule on them. The British look down on the Burmese, feeling they are inferior. Now, you can write a thesis statement based on this theme. One suggestion is, "The clash of cultures can result in prejudice and intolerance in a society." You would then use specific examples from Shooting an Elephant to show how this is true.

If you go to the enotes link of Shooting an Elephant, you will find some more ideas for thesis statements. But remember, a thesis statement can be developed from the conflict(s), the setting, the irony, or any other literary element of a piece of literature.

user profile pic

sagetrieb | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted June 25, 2007 at 1:31 AM (Answer #2)

dislike 0 like

Because “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell is an essay, it contains its own thesis, which is an argument about the nature of imperialism. This thesis does not appear in just one sentence of the essay, but various passages contain it, with the rest of the essay—the story of shooting the elephant—providing an example to “prove” its truth. The argument about imperialism that is central to “Shooting an Elephant” can be summarized something like this: Imperialism affects the oppressed as well as the oppressor. Because it is an immoral relationship of power, it compels the oppressor to act immorally to keep up appearances that he is right. The narrator realizes that the British Raj which he serves is “an unbreakable tyranny” yet despises the people he oppresses for allowing him to do so. On the one hand he is regarded as a wise ruler, but on the other he knows he is wrong in what he does but must behave in such a way to disquise this. As a result, he finds himself doing whatever he must do, which in this case is to kill the elephant, to “avoid looking [the] fool” that he knows he is for representing the powers of imperialism.

user profile pic

clane | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted February 9, 2008 at 4:46 AM (Answer #1)

dislike 0 like

Orwell wrote this essay because he wanted to express his distaste for imperialism which he grew up in the face of. He had strong ties to India, his birthplace, even though he grew up in Britain. He actually served as an Imperialist Police Office in the 1920s as well so he saw first hand the abuse that they received from people like the Burmese. "I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing... I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British." His main thesis in writing the essay then was more of an appeal to the British to stop enforcing these strict imperial laws and turn away from colonialism in an effort to salvage what was left of their freedom as the British. Orwell writes, "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys," which is probably the clearest statement of how he feels about British imperialism. We see the loss of freedom when he is forced to shoot the elephant for the Burmese people even though he doesn't personally think it's necessary. He has lost his freedom to think for himself as his hand is pushed by those who are being tyrannized.

Sources:

Join to answer this question

Join a community of thousands of dedicated teachers and students.

Join eNotes