What is the paradox in the story "Shooting an Elephant"?

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reidalot eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this short story, there is more than one paradox, though one is central to the theme. First of all, the narrator is a European, British, and he is ashamed of his own country's imperialistic behavior even though he is a policeman. The elephant has gone "must," mad for a short period, so he is summoned to deal with the problem. Ironically, even though the narrator is a policeman, who should hold high respect and authority, the natives disrespect him and enjoy ridiculing him.

It is for fear of "making a fool of myself" that the narrator commits the sin against nature, that of shooting the elephant. Paradoxically, just as the elephant is "powerless to move" after he has been shot multiple times, the narrator is just as powerless in his emblematic role of authority. Yet, the narrator tells us himself the central paradox in this story: "When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." In essence, the main paradox is that when one believes he is all powerful (a tyrant), there is no freedom of choice left in that role and no power; he must always act the tyrant! Thus, he is forced to act against his own conscience and shoot the elephant!

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Shooting an Elephant," there are a number of paradoxes. Firstly, in the opening paragraph, Orwell says:

As a police officer, I was an obvious target.

At first glance, this seems a false statement, as the majority of people would not target a police officer because of his social status and the legal implications of such activities. However, as Orwell's observations show, there is some truth to this statement since he was constantly baited and mocked by the local Burmese.

Secondly, there is another paradox in the following line:

When the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys.

This seems false because, by its very definition, a tyrant has absolute freedom to do as he pleases. However, on closer inspection, we see some truth. As Orwell shows, imperialism strips the tyrant of his power by making him behave in a particular way. Specifically, imperialism forces him to act authoritative at all times, even if he does not want to. Otherwise, he will lose face and, by default, his power over those that he rules over.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The central paradox of "Shooting An Elephant" is that maintaining the appearance of being powerful renders the British imperialists running Burma powerless. In order to maintain the illusion that British rule in the country is legitimate, the British overlords have to save face no matter what. Their hold on the country is shaky enough (for example, the prisons are full and even the Buddhist monks hate them) that they can't afford to look weak. This means that a minor official like Orwell's narrator must do a weak, senseless thing in order to look strong.

Orwell is saying that bad systems develop a logic of their own that works against both the rulers and the ruled. Paradoxically, the system in Burma is stronger than the people supposedly running it. People live to serve the system rather than the system serving them. This, to Orwell, is a system run amok.

sedw12345 | Student

The main paradox involves the tyranny the narrator faces while imposing tyranny upon the subjects of the Empire.  The Burmese, the supposed subjects of the Empire, are the ones who control, and later force the narrator to shoot the elephant against his will. They control him and his views with ambivalence, having the narrator both care for their safety and side with their position against the Empire, while at the same time hating them, to the point that he wants to put a bayonet through a Burmese monk.