close-up illustration of an elephant's face

Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell
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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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The Indian labourer in "Shooting an Elephant" appears to have been killed instantly, crushed into the earth by the animal, though Orwell tells us that a look of "unendurable agony" showed on the man's face. He adds that the man's arms are spread in a crucified position. Significantly,...

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The Indian labourer in "Shooting an Elephant" appears to have been killed instantly, crushed into the earth by the animal, though Orwell tells us that a look of "unendurable agony" showed on the man's face. He adds that the man's arms are spread in a crucified position. Significantly, Orwell has not actually witnessed the killing of the labourer. Yet it is the first indication of the horror of the incident as it is unfolding.

The man's apparently quick killing forms a contrast with the prolonged process of the elephant's death—but perhaps only a superficial one. Because Orwell has aimed his initial shot the wrong way, the elephant does not die instantly. He's required to continue with shot after shot which, he tells us, seem to make no impression, and Orwell can't stand watching the suffering of the animal: he tells us he leaves the scene while the elephant is still alive, and only later does he find out that it took a half-hour before the beast finally expired.

The elephant's prolonged death-throes are arguably a metaphor, perhaps symbolic of the suffering of a colonized country, but it is more likely that they represent the coming death of the British Empire, which at the outset of the tale Orwell tells us is doomed and is in the process of dying. At the same time, in spite of his professed liberalism, Orwell seems to demean the crowd of Burmese people (and this is in keeping with his opening statements about the business of imperialism causing him to have a reflexive dislike of the Burmese) by observing that:

Burmans were bringing dash and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped [the elephant's] body almost to the bones by the afternoon.

Yet several points show the death of the Indian laborer as a parallel event to the killing of the elephant. Both man and beast are innocent bystanders, so to speak, in this drama of empire and subjugation. The "coolie" is a "black Dravidian," and this fact is probably intended by Orwell to emphasize the specifically racial injustice of colonialism. The look of agony on the man's face is also symbolic of the immense pain the whole imperialist system has created.

But perhaps most decisively, Orwell's use of imagery from the Christian scriptures, which would have been obvious even without the explicit use of the word "crucified," invests the man's death with an almost apocalyptic symbolism. Even Orwell's central and now-famous observation—that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys"—seems to fade into insignificance in the face of this existential tragedy.

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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. 

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