Study Guide

Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

Shooting an Elephant Themes

Themes

Conscience
The narrator’s mental division points to conscience as one of the underlying themes of ‘‘Shooting an Elephant.’’ The narrator must do his duty as a colonial policeman. He despises the native Burmese for loathing and tormenting him as their foreign oppressor; yet he also perfectly well understands their loathing and tormenting; he even takes their side privately. His official position, rather than his moral disposition, compels the narrator to act in the way that he does, so as to uphold his office precisely by keeping the native Burmese in their subordinate and dependent place. As a colonial official, the narrator must not let himself become a spectacle before the native crowds. Not shooting the elephant would make him seem like a coward, so he shoots the elephant. The narrator’s moral conscience appears in the moment when the corpse of the Burmese crushed by the elephant comes to his attention; the narrator says that the man lay sprawled in a ‘‘crucified’’ posture, invoking all of the poignant and rich symbolism that the term ‘‘crucified’’ offers. The elephant, too, especially in its pain-wracked death, evokes in the narrator feelings of terrible pity, not soothed by his knowledge that he acted within the law. Law, indeed, opposes conscience in ‘‘Shooting an Elephant.’’ The brute fact of Empire, thoroughly institutionalized, is irreconcilable with the individual’s moral analysis of the situation.

Culture Clash
The obvious culture clash in ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ is that between the colonizers and the colonized, the British and the Burmese. The British represent the industrial West with its notions of civic administration and its technological excellence; the Burmese represent a powerless pre-industrial society set upon by an industrial superpower looking beyond its own borders for a field of action. The Burmese despise the British; the British condescend to the Burmese. Less obvious, but far more important, are two other culture clashes. The first is the ethical difference setting the narrator, as a representative of the West, apart from the native Burmese, who belong to the local...

(The entire section is 890 words.)