Compare the description of the killing of the elephant to that of the killing of the Indian coolie in George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant."

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Vikash Lata eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both the Indian coolie and the elephant died painfully and miserably. Both of these deaths elicit our pity.

Nevertheless, there's a difference in the way we feel pity for them. The mutilated body of the Indian arouses pity combined with a sense of helplessness; whereas the elephant’s slow and torturous death evokes pity that is accompanied by a sense of disgust towards the narrator. It's because he could have avoided killing the giant creature.

The Indian died when he was attacked by the elephant that “had gone ‘must.’” His mangled body depicted the “unendurable agony” he must have felt when the elephant had trampled him under its foot. The lurid description of his body is horrifying and upsetting. According to the narrator,

"The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth.”

He further says,

He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning... The friction of the great beast's foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit.”

Perhaps, it wouldn't be right to blame either the Indian or the berserk elephant for his tragic end. His death could well be described as a most unfortunate accident, that seemed quite unavoidable.

In stark contrast to the Indian's death, the killing of the elephant seemed utterly pointless, absolutely intentional, and at the same time, avoidable.

The narrator killed the elephant when it “looked no more dangerous than a cow.” The excuse given by him sounds utterly frivolous. He says he gunned it down "solely to avoid looking a fool." 

Unlike the Indian, it took the elephant much longer time to die. The climactic paragraphs describe its slow death in gruesome detail. Having fired "shot after shot into his heart and down his throat" when the elephant didn't cease its “noisy” breathing, the narrator went away for he “could not stand it any longer.”

He learns it later that "it took him half an hour to die."

The following excerpts describe the tormenting death of the elephant with grisly details. 

He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling ... I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken...

He was dying, very slowly and in great agony… Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him... The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock. In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away.

When we compare the two deaths, we feel sorry for both the Indian and the elephant. Neither of them deserved death when they died. However, the death of the elephant causes in us a greater sense of uneasiness because the killer of the elephant was fully aware about the pointlessness of the act he was to carry out. Had he been courageous, he could have retreated without harming the giant creature. 

Read the study guide:
Shooting an Elephant

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