What is the irony of "Shooting an Elephant?"

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Irony, or a contrast between what is expected and what occurs, develops in Orwell's essay because of the contradictory nature of imperialism. For, while it is the ruling power and issuer of cruelty and punishment, the imperialist government finds itself at times victimized by its own rules and, sometimes by its subjects. Orwell writes,

I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys...For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got todo what the "natives" expect of him.

Thus, as a police officer for Great Britain, the colonial power, Orwell finds himself overpowered by both the Burmese people and by his own ego after he is called upon to investigate a rogue elephant. At first, Orwell answers the call with the intention of not shooting the elephant because doing so is "comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery; however, because the Burmese watch him, hoping to be able to laugh at him, Orwell knows that he cannot "come all that way...only to trail feebly away, having done nothing." Ironically, then, Orwell is dominated by those whom his government oppresses.

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd...in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.

So, Orwell acts against his conscience to keep from looking like a fool before the Burmese people who have followed him and watch him and he shoots the elephant.