What did Orwell learn about himself and about imperialism through the incident in "Shooting an Elephant"?

Orwell learns that imperialism forces individuals to act against their conscience in order to maintain the resolute, aggressive disposition necessary to impress the Natives. He discovers that agents of the imperialist regime must wear a mask and are extremely susceptible to peer pressure. Orwell experiences an epiphany before shooting the elephant and recognizes that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles
In Orwell's short story "Shooting an Elephant ," the young British officer experiences conflicting feelings regarding imperialism. Although the British officer is in favor of the native Burmese citizens, he resents them for treating him with contempt and continually bullying him. However, the narrator recognizes the negatives attached...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial
In Orwell's short story "Shooting an Elephant," the young British officer experiences conflicting feelings regarding imperialism. Although the British officer is in favor of the native Burmese citizens, he resents them for treating him with contempt and continually bullying him. However, the narrator recognizes the negatives attached to imperialism and witnesses the "dirty work of Empire at close quarters," which he finds appalling and disturbing. One day, the British officer is given the order to investigate an incident regarding a loose elephant that is ravaging the bazaar. The narrator retrieves an elephant rifle for protection and a large crowd of Burmese natives begins following him.
Once he discovers the elephant peacefully grazing by itself, he contemplates leaving the scene but experiences an immense amount of peer pressure to kill the docile elephant from the surrounding Burmese natives. Despite recognizing that the elephant is harmless and deserves to live, the British officer feels compelled by the crowd to shoot the animal in order to avoid being laughed at. As the officer is analyzing the situation, he has an epiphany and 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, 8)
As a British officer, the narrator represents the ruling imperialist regime, which influences him to act against his will to impress the Natives at all costs. The narrator realizes that he must maintain a resolute disposition and shoot the elephant because the Natives expect him to. Tragically, the British officer succumbs to the peer pressure and shoots the docile elephant to avoid being laughed at. The irony is that members of the ruling imperialist regime are also controlled to some degree by the Natives they oppress. The British officer recognizes that he is greatly influenced by the Natives and shoots the elephant against his will to avoid looking like a fool.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Orwell relates his experience with the elephant in “Shooting an Elephant” it gives some insight into his own psyche as well as the structure of imperialism.

Perhaps the most intriguing situation that arises in the story is how the mob has more power over Orwell than he, their supposed military governor, has over them. In spite of knowing the elephant could be captured and tamed, the mob calls for its death, and the cries overcome Orwell, causing him to shoot and kill the beast. In this moment, he criticizes imperialism, showing that the leaders are controlled by the masses just as much as, if not more so than, the other way around.

The insight into Orwell’s own mind is similar. He reveals a weakness and malleability in this moment. It shows that Orwell can be swayed by the opinion of the others, and that he is not immune to this idea, even if he recognizes it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Shooting an Elephant" contains George Orwell's ruminations concerning an experience he had back when he was a police officer working in Southeast Asia. His experience with the elephant leaves a radical mark on his thoughts concerning imperialism, and concerning the power dynamics which imperialism entails.

It's important to note that, as Orwell tells it, he did not actually wish to shoot the elephant. However, as he drew the attention of the Burmese people, who gathered in a crowd to follow, there was an expectation that he would kill the elephant. Regardless of his own wishes, Orwell claims to have found himself compelled to conform to that expectation.

This, for Orwell, represents a critical aspect concerning the nature of imperialism, and its effect on the imperialists themselves: by its very nature, imperialism requires that the imperialist must continually adhere to the expectations of the colonized, regardless of the imperialist's own preferences or instincts. So it is in this case with the elephant: because the crowd expected that he shoot the elephant, Orwell found himself forced to shoot the elephant. To do otherwise would be a show of weakness and earn their disrespect.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Although Orwell describes the shooting of the elephant as a "tiny" incident in itself, it also proves to be an "enlightening" experience because it teaches him an important lesson about imperialism. Specifically, about why "despotic," imperial governments act the way that they do.

To understand the lesson that Orwell learns, take a look at what happens when he is standing in front of the Burmese people and it becomes clear that they expect him to shoot the elephant. As the weight of expectation bears down upon him, Orwell suddenly realizes that when a man becomes an imperialist, he spends the rest of his life trying to "impress the natives:"

A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things.

In other words, Orwell has learned that imperialism does not just exploit the native people; it exploits the imperialists too. Why? Because an imperialist must always act like an imperialist. He is expected to always be domineering and in control of the situation. It does not matter if he really wants to be this way or not. If he does not act in this manner at all times, then he will lose the respect of the natives. This is what Orwell learns from the incident with the elephant. It does not matter that Orwell has no desire to shoot the elephant; he must do it because it is expected of him. This is a condition of imperialism that he, and the rest of the British Empire, cannot escape.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team