In "Shooting an Elephant," why does the narrator hesitate to kill the elephant? 

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The narrator hesitates to kill the elephant because by the time he arrives at the place where the elephant has been on a rampage, the elephant is peaceful. The narrator realizes the animal no longer poses any threat. It would be an economic waste to kill such a valuable animal, it would be cruel to the animal, which would die slowly, and overall, there is no reason to destroy it.

Nevertheless, the narrator has asked that his elephant gun be brought to him for self defense. When it arrives, the narrator is willing to walk away from the elephant. However, he suddenly recognizes that he is expected to play a starring role in a drama unfolding in front of the eyes of a crowd of Burmese native people. If he does not kill the elephant, he will look weak to them. Therefore, he does so, even though it is unreasonable and inhumane. As he kills the peaceful beast, he has a moment of realization:

And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.

In order to survive in an imperial system, the narrator must put appearances ahead of good sense and humanity. This way of life is repugnant to him.

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The narrator clearly has no intention of killing the animal when he first gets the order that a loose elephant is ravaging the village. He mentions that he brought an old .44 Winchester, a weapon much too small to kill an animal of that size, in hopes that the noise from the rifle would startle the elephant. When the narrator finally receives a more powerful rifle from an orderly, a crowd begins to follow him. The narrator again mentions that he has no intention of killing the elephant and is simply carrying the rifle for self-defense. As soon as he sees the elephant, the narrator knows that he should not shoot it. He says,

"It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant—it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery— and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided" (Orwell, 3).

The narrator also mentions that the elephant looks perfectly harmless and says that it is no more dangerous than a cow. However, the narrator feels pressure from the natives to shoot the elephant, and he ends up reluctantly killing the animal as a way to avoid being perceived as weak in front of the crowd.

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In short, the narrator hesitates to kill the elephant because he does not, in fact, want to go through with it. For one thing, killing an elephant is in and of itself a serious matter, since elephants are so valuable. Shooting an elephant is akin to "destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery." More importantly, by the time the narrator encounters the elephant, it is no longer rampaging, but is peacefully and calmly eating grass near the edge of town. But the problem for the narrator is that a crowd of Burmese people has followed him, and they expect him to shoot the beast. He realizes that, although he does not want to kill the animal, he has to in order to, in his words, avoid "looking a fool." He is a representative of the British Empire to the Burmese people, and they expect him to act violently. Shooting the elephant against his better judgment is one example of how imperialism has corrupted the narrator.

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