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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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How would you characterize the narrator in George Orwell's story "Shooting an Elephant"?

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The narrator of "Shooting an Elephant" is a conflicted but unflinchingly self-aware individual caught in a oppressive colonial system he despises but colludes with. He is in many ways a prototype of Winston Smith in Orwell's novel 1984an everyman caught in a damaging system, but unlike Winston, he doesn't rebel, unless we interpret his essay as that act.

He is like Winston in hating the system:

For at that time 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.

And like Winston, he secretly opposes "Big Brother," in this case casting the British government in that role:

Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.

Like Winston, he is part of the system of oppression and on the lower end of the spectrum. Winston is outer Party, a part of the elite but in a peripheral role, and likewise, the narrator is British, but a lower-level flunky.

Also, like Winston, he is conflicted: he hates the system, but like Winston has violent fantasies that mirror the violence of the system he hates. Winston has violent fantasies about Julia until he gets to know her, and enjoys a war film in which proles are blown up, while the narrator notes:

With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny ... with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.

He is intelligent and able to analyze his emotions as not those of a sociopath but as caused by a corrupt system:

Feelings like these are the normal byproducts of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

Finally, he reveals himself to be ruthlessly honest about himself, which leads to a sense of self-loathing for colluding with a system he knows is wrong. He kills the elephant to save face, but doesn't try to rationalize why he did it or cloak the action in honor. He realizes he is no hero:

I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

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The narrator in George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” is both confused and proud. His confusion stems from his youth and learning experiences as a white man from the West living in Burma. The most notable characteristic of the narrator, however, is his pride in his nation and homeland. Although he opens the story by describing the evils of British Imperialism, he proves himself a proud individual and patriot. “I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool,” he shares of his trek toward the elephant after he equips an elephant rifle. Here his foolishness refers to his personal pride in appearing to be a man who knows what he is doing and maintains control. Rather, the whole situation is new to him and he is utterly unsure of himself. Readers know that he is typically a proud person because this sense of uncertainty makes him feel foolish.

We learn that he is a patriot when he realizes that he really must shoot the elephant. Because the British Empire was trying to establish itself as an entity of power and control, the narrator reasons that all white men associated with the Empire must prove to follow suit. Therefore, he could not simply walk away from the elephant situation. If he were not to shoot, “The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” The narrator is a patriot and cannot abide letting down the image of his country.

“Shooting an Elephant.” The Literature Network. Jalic Inc., 2000-2016. Web. 30 March 2016.

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