In "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell, why does the narrator not want to shoot the elephant? And how does his desire to keep the elephant alive relate to imperialism?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George Orwell does not want to shoot the elephant that has gone rogue for these reasons:

  1. A working elephant is valuable and since the elephant seems to have calmed down, it does not appear to have anything really wrong with it.
  2. It is a very serious act to shoot such an elephant; therefore, doing so should be avoided.
  3. To Orwell, it feels as though he would be murdering the elephant if he shoots it.

But, when he sees the Burmese faces watching him, Orwell realizes that he must shoot the elephant:

The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.

And, herein lies the dilemma of imperialism. While the conqueror reaps the rewards of controlling the assets and profits of a nation, there is a certain facade to maintain control, a certain behavior to uphold as the colonizer. The irony, then, is that Orwell, the imperialist also becomes victim to his own imperialism in two ways:

  • Orwell must appear resolute and decisive; since he has brought the rifle, he feels that he must use it or risk losing the fear-inspired respect of the Burmese. So, he acts out of moral cowardice.
  • After he shoots the elephant, Orwell is relieved that the coolie has died because this death provides him some justification for killing the animal. However, even though he is "legally in the right," he has killed the elephant "solely to avoid looking like a fool" before the Burmese people--political concerns have outweighed personal ones. 
aspatel18 | Student

The narrator does not want to shoot the elephant for a few reasons. First, the elephant is no longer violent. The elephant is, in fact, returning back to a state of calmness or peacefulness. Second, he has never shot an animal so large. Third, the elephant is vital to the workplace and therefore, has value. 

The narrator clearly does not want to shoot the elephant and yet, he is forced to do just this because of what is expected of him by the natives. Orwell uses this to describe how imperialism causes the government workers to go against their better judgement and are forced into doing things they do not want to in order for their country to remain superior. 

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Shooting an Elephant

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