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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell
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What is the argument in George Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant"?

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While the short one- or two-page essays you are expected to write in introductory writing classes are expected to have a singular argument, George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant " is a longer, more complex work attempting to portray the experience of being a colonial policeman in Burma. Generally,...

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While the short one- or two-page essays you are expected to write in introductory writing classes are expected to have a singular argument, George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" is a longer, more complex work attempting to portray the experience of being a colonial policeman in Burma. Generally, the essay argues that the effect of colonialism is to demoralize and brutalize both the British and the natives, but it also makes important points about how mob pressure can make one act against one's best judgment and how fear can lead to mob hysteria.

For the British, to control a large native populace despite being outnumbered, they felt that they constantly needed to project an image of strength. This meant always appearing to act decisively and with what appeared efficiency bordering on brutality. Orwell himself, young and insecure, would have preferred a more moderate and reflective approach but caves in to the way the people expect him to act and is ashamed of it. He suspects that the outward appearance of strength often is grounded in inner weakness and is ashamed when his fellow policemen compliment him on killing (slowly and painfully) a harmless and innocent creature, concluding:

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

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