Does George Orwell appear to be a coward and a racist in his essay "Shooting an Elephant"?
In his essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell reveals a lot about himself. From what he tells the reader, he does seem to consider himself a coward for giving in to the crowd and shooting the escaped elephant. What is more difficult is determining whether his views about the Burmese are merely cowardly or also racist.
Orwell portrays himself as a critic of the British colonial government of Burma. As he tells us:
Theoretically – and secretly, of course – I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.
As such, he understands his place in the social hierarchy. Whether he agrees with the colonial government or not, he is an agent of that government, and the Burmese view him as such.
This understanding leads to his dilemma about shooting the escaped elephant. Orwell realizes that he has stepped into a position in which he cannot show fear or indecision. He is, in short, afraid of looking foolish. Because of this, he decides to shoot the elephant, even thought it was no longer on a rampage:
A white man mustn't be frightened in front of "natives"; and so, in general, he isn't frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.
In this, we see the coward he knows himself to be. The fear of looking foolish overcomes his better sense, and he acts to escape his fear.
The above passage also illustrates the racial issue in the essay. Orwell believes British imperialism to be, in his words, "evil." Still, he sees himself, as a white man, to be separate, even above, the Burmese, whom he seems to consider an undifferentiated mass, one which he must appease. He may not possess the same racial views as the colonial government, but neither does he seem to think of the Burmese people as individuals like himself. When we combine this with his statement at the end that he is glad that the “coolie” was killed because it gave him the pretext for shooting the elephant, we see that even though he is an opponent of colonial imperialism, it does not appear that he is free from seeing local peoples as something less than he thinks himself to be.
First, we should remember that Orwell is a little unclear about the extent to which "Shooting an Elephant" is autobiographical. Clearly, by telling the story in the first person, he strongly suggests that it is, and he was in fact a British imperial policeman in Burma. Also, he apparently actually shot an elephant in this capacity. So it is unclear whether Orwell is writing specifically about himself or a sort of representative of the attitudes he encountered while on duty. That being said, the narrator makes it very clear he considers himself a coward. He shoots the elephant, he says at the end of the essay, because he is afraid of "looking a fool." He understands that the people hate him, and as someone who recognizes the brutality of imperialism, he doesn't really blame them. But it is this recognition that causes him to act counter to his wishes. He does not want to shoot the elephant and sees no compelling reason to do so. But he shoots it because he knows the crowd expects him to act with force, brutality, and violence, and he is afraid to act otherwise:
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him.
As for racism, there is no doubt that Orwell's narrator strongly dislikes the Burmese people. He views them monolithically, as a group of "evil-spirited little beasts," even as he believes on some level that the British have made them that way. His ambivalence is best expressed in the following sentence:
With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down . . . upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.
There is little doubt, in short, that Orwell's narrator demonstrates both cowardice and racism in the story. But Orwell also seems to think that it is the imperial relationship that has corrupted everyone involved. Imperialism makes cowards and racists out of those responsible for enforcing it.