How does "Shooting an Elephant" relate to imperialism?

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kipling2448's profile pic

kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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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.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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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arkaless's profile pic

arkaless | College Teacher | (Level 1) Salutatorian

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George Orwell's Shooting an Elephant deals with his experience as the sub-divisional police officer in Moulmein, Lower Burma. The story reveals the official obligation as well as the moral dilemma of an Imperialist police officer to shoot a rogue elephant. The author-cum-narrator was not willing to shoot the elephant, for the madness of the animal was nearly over and, moreover, he had never shot at a huge animal like the elephant. But he felt rather compelled to do so by a crowd of locals who wanted to see the magical incident of an elephant being shot at and killed by the white man. The  author, being a representative of the European Imperialist regime, just could not afford to go back without shooting the beast.

Orwell's essay(or it may also be read as a short story) explores how Imperialist domination and its omnipotent icon, namely, the European sahib, were believed to be so invincible that the author simply did not have the liberty to deprive the big crowd of people from enjoying a sensational sight. Shooting an Elephant is thus a very subtle critique of British Imperialism in the Indian sub-continent.