Does George Orwell appear to be a coward and a racist in his essay, "Shooting an Elephant"?  

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jpn001 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

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Shooting an Elephant

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