Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Based on Orwell’s experience with the Indian Imperial Police (1922-1927), “Shooting an Elephant” is set in Moulmein, in Lower Burma. Orwell, the narrator, has already begun to question the presence of the British in the Far East. He says that, theoretically and secretly, he was “all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.” Orwell describes himself as “young and ill-educated,” bitterly hating his job.
Orwell’s job, in this instance, is to respond to a report of the death of a local man who was killed by an elephant in musth. Orwell finds the man “lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to the side.” The corpse grins with “an expression of unendurable agony.” At this point, Orwell feels the collective will of the crowd urging him to shoot the elephant, but Orwell, knowing that the elephant is probably no longer dangerous, has no intention of shooting the elephant. He begins to anthropomorphize the elephant, changing the pronouns from “it” to “he,” referring to the elephant’s “preoccupied grandmotherly air,” and concluding that “it would be murder to shoot the elephant.”
Despite Orwell’s aversion to shooting the elephant, he becomes suddenly aware that he will lose face and be humiliated if he does not shoot it. He therefore shoots the elephant. The death itself is sustained in excruciating detail. After three shots, the elephant still does not die. Orwell...
(The entire section is 524 words.)
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‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ begins with a meditative prelude to the action in which the narrator, who may be presumed to be Orwell, comments on being a colonial policeman in British Burma in the middle of the twentieth century. ‘‘I was hated by large numbers of people,’’ he says, and ‘‘anti-European feeling was very bitter.’’ A European woman crossing the market would likely be spat upon and a subdivisional police officer made an even more inviting target. Once, at a soccer match, a Burmese player deliberately fouled the narrator while the Burmese umpire conveniently looked the other direction and the largely Burmese crowd ‘‘yelled with hideous laughter.’’ The narrator understands such hatred and even thinks it justified, but he also confesses that his ‘‘greatest joy’’ at the time would have been to bayonet one of his tormenters.
The action of ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ begins when the narrator receives a telephone report of an elephant ‘‘ravaging the bazaar.’’ He takes his inadequate hunting rifle and rides on horseback to the area where the animal allegedly lurks. The narrator remarks on the squalor and poverty of the neighborhood, with its palm-leaf thatch on the huts and unplanned scattering of houses over a hillside. The narrator asks about the elephant and receives a vague answer. Suddenly an old woman comes into view shooing away a group of children. She is trying to prevent them seeing a corpse, a...
(The entire section is 646 words.)