Shooting an Elephant Questions and Answers
by George Orwell

Shooting an Elephant book cover
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What argument is Orwell making in "Shooting an Elephant"?

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Throughout Orwell's short story "Shooting an Elephant," he critiques imperialism by illustrating the conflicting nature of colonialism as well as the tense relationship between the ruling Europeans and the marginalized Burmese citizens. As a British police officer stationed in Lower Burma, the narrator describes his rough life being an authority figure who is continually ridiculed by the Burmese citizens. The narrator has his own particular views of imperialism and favors the oppressed Burmese citizens, despite being a British police officer. The narrator describes his perplexing situation by saying,

"All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible" (Orwell, 1).

As the story progresses, the narrator is informed of a loose elephant that is terrorizing the bazaar. The narrator begins his search for the elephant, and a crowd gathers behind him. Once the British officer finds the elephant calmly eating grass by itself, he feels an extraordinary pressure from the Burmese crowd to shoot the massive elephant. Despite not wanting to kill the animal, the narrator feels that he must shoot it because he is worried about how the Burmese citizens will view him. Herein lies Orwell's argument regarding the nature of imperialism. The narrator says,

"I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. 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 to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant" (Orwell, 3). 

Orwell's short story gives a unique insight into the life of a British police officer who represents an imperial regime that he does not inherently support. Interestingly, Orwell not only portrays the jaded, perplexed feelings of the British officer but also depicts how his position of authority negatively affects his decisions and conscience.

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In this powerful essay, George Orwell uses the symbol of when he was forced to shoot an elephant to describe the foolhardiness and inherent weakness of the colonial endeavour. He describes how the elephant did not need to be shot and how he really didn't want to shoot it. However, when he finally reaches the elephant, the crowd that is getting bigger with every moment pressurises him into shooting the elephant and he feels as if he is being looked at as if he were a "conjurer about to perform a trick." It is this moment that triggers an epiphany in Orwell's mind about the futility of what Britain is trying to achieve through her colonial exploits:

And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grapsed 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--seeming 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.

Thus it is that he realises the cental paradox that lies behind colonialism, that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." The narrator feels that people expect powerful action from him as he is the all-powerful white man who rules them. He cannot free himself from the role in which he has been cast and thus actually destroys his own freedom. It is this point that this essay so powerfully makes.

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