In Shooting an Elephant, what are some proofs supporting and refuting that George Orwell is right to shoot the elephant?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant" explains the variations of tyranny. There is, of course, the colonial rule and control of England over Burma; on the other hand, there is the "tyranny of the majority" as the Burmese who stand watching the imperialist to see what he will do exert upon Orwell as he feels their physical threat:

For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives"....

Here, then, are some reasons why shooting the elephant Orwell feels it is justifiable, as well as reasons why it is not.


  • Orwell can display the British "good form" of acting with colonial discipline and protocol to the mocking Burmese priests, and, perhaps, quiet their dissent.
  • As a member of the ruling race, he must kill the elephant because he cannot display sympathy for the dead Burmese man.
  • In order to show power over the "sneering yellow faces of young men," who stand around him watching to see what he will do once he arrives on the scene, Orwell must act the part of the imperialist and exert power in whichever way is necessary.

They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realised that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.

If he does not shoot the elephant, he will be ridiculed.

  • A white man must never display fear before the "natives." By doing so, he may avert being trampled upon and "reduced to a grinning corpse."


  • While it may be practical for him to shoot the elephant, Orwell, he really does not want to shoot it, as doing so seems pointless.
  • Shooting a "working elephant" is a serious matter:

It is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.

  • The elephant is not a rogue elephant; "it seems very tame  and docile as it calmly eats the grass. "...the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow."
  • Orwell feels it is morally wrong to kill the elephant. As he watches the elephant feeding with its "grandmotherly air that elephants have," it seems to Orwell "that it would be murder to shoot him." 
  • The elephant is worth more alive to the owner than if it were dead.
playsthething eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George Orwell writes this narratve to make a point about Imperialism. In and around all of the beautiful figurative language he employs, the elephant becomes a symbol of both the oppressed and the oppressors. Orwell presents us with both sides, placing himself in the story in a no-win situation.  He recognizes the limitations of Imperialism at the same time that he recognizes the innocence of the elephant.  He also admits his hate of the Burmese at the same time admitting his fear of appearing foolish in front of them.

The justifications for shooting the elephant include the fact that the elephant has damaged a hut, killed a cow, stolen fruit, and killed a Coolie.  This gives him legal justification. While he recognizes the fact that the elephant's must is passed, he is pressed to shoot the elephant because of the will of the native crowd that has ammassed. He is more concerned with looking foolish in front of them than honoring the life of the elephant or worrying about its owner's livelihood.  

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Shooting an Elephant

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