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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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How does "Shooting an Elephant" relate to imperialism?

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In this essay, Orwell uses shooting the elephant to illustrate the basic irrationality and evil of imperialism.

As the story opens, we learn that the narrator, a young imperial police officer in Burma, is hated by the native Burmese, as all the British imperialist forces are—and he knows it. However, when an elephant goes on a rampage, he is called on to handle the situation, in part because only the British are allowed to have guns. By the time he arrives at the scene, the elephant is completely calm and poses no threat. Yet, because a crowd of hostile, passive-aggressive Burmese are behind him, implicitly challenging him to act, the narrator shoots the elephant for no reason but to save face and look like he is handling the situation in a strong and aggressive manner.

As the narrator describes in some detail, the elephant dies slowly and in agony. Its owner loses his investment in the animal. The narrator feels disgusted with himself for letting pride overcome his ration and empathy and common sense of life and survival with an animal. No real good emerges.

From it, however, the narrator comes to realize that imperialism is a system that owns everyone in it. It forces everyone, even the so-called imperial masters, to uphold the system in irrational ways.

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George Orwell's story "Shooting an Elephant" relates directly to the issue of European imperialism and the effects of colonization not only on those being colonized, but on those doing the colonizing.  The very first sentences in his story bespeak the loathsome nature of colonialism and its gradually corrosive effects on both sides of the equation:

". . .in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter."

Further into the story, Orwell's narrator, likely representing his own experiences as a colonial administrator in what was once the "empire on which the sun never set," reveals his own underlying ambivalence towards British colonialism and his acknowledgement of the soul-crushing burden associated with subjugating another people:

"I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British."

Throughout this brief story, Orwell's narrative is replete with examples of the author's disdain for imperialism and his hatred of the life to which he has been condemned by virtue of his English heritage.  Observing Burmese prisoners huddling in a British-administered prison, their wretched state a visible symbol of the morally-corrosive effects of imperialism, the narrator notes that "all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt," while referring to British colonialism as an "unbreakable tyranny."  "Shooting an Elephant" is far less about shooting an elephant -- a revered animal in much of Southeast Asia -- than it is an indictment of British foreign policy with regard to what used to be called "the Third World."  Orwell's narrative is all about imperialism; the titular elephant is merely a symbol of all that was wrong with his nation's policies.

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There are at least a couple of different ways in which “Shooting an Elephant,” by George Orwell, relates to imperialism.

First, “Shooting an Elephant” can be seen as a memoir of imperialism from the point of view of a person who was part of the imperial machinery.  The narrator in this story/essay is a police officer in the imperial government. The story sets out his feelings about imperialism and describes the events of a particular incident that he experienced.

Second, and more importantly, “Shooting an Elephant” is a critique of imperialism.  The point of this essay is to show us that Orwell believes that imperialism is bad for both the subject people and the people of the imperial power. In the essay, Orwell focuses on how imperialism forced him to do something (shoot the elephant) that he did not want to do.  He discusses the fact that agents of the imperial government had to do things that they didn’t want to do as a way of maintaining their prestige and that of the ruling race.

So we can say that “Shooting an Elephant” serves as both a memoir of and a critique of imperialism.

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