What did Orwell mean by the following quote from "Shooting an Elephant"?

It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had before of the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act.

 

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The incident in question is when he shot and killed the rogue elephant. Knowing that the elephant was really just a frightened and helpless creature that could likely easily be tamed and calmed, it was not necessary to kill it. However, he killed it anyways to maintain a level of...

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

The incident in question is when he shot and killed the rogue elephant. Knowing that the elephant was really just a frightened and helpless creature that could likely easily be tamed and calmed, it was not necessary to kill it. However, he killed it anyways to maintain a level of respect, strength, and fear in the region.

His implication in the quote is that his position because of the imperialistic society in the country obligated him to kill an innocent animal when he could easily have taken other measures. Because of the level of power they had to maintain to keep control in the country, it was necessary for Orwell to seem strong and exacting. Therefore, he shot and killed an innocent animal because of the pressure from the people (who were nearing revolt at the incident) and the pressure from the government (to be seen as strong and frightening).

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

Shooting an innocent elephant who is doing no harm is what gives the narrator a better insight into the real nature of imperialism.

Even as he does it, the narrator realizes it is a complete waste of a valuable resource. It is senseless too, as the elephant is no longer a threat to anyone. And, because the narrator has the wrong gun, the elephant is guaranteed to die slowly and painfully. Everything about shooting the elephant is abhorrent to the speaker, but he does it anyway: he needs to save face in front of the Burmese, who won't respect him as an imperial police officer if he doesn't go through with the job.

From that experience, the narrator gets a better glimpse of what a wasteful, irrational, and cruel system imperialism is. It exists simply to exist—to perpetuate itself—and does that at great and senseless cost. It is concerned more with maintaining an image of power than with doing any real good.

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

This statement identifies the topic or main idea that Orwell will examine throughout the rest of the essay.  This topic is imperialism and he will find the true motives of the colonists.

The tiny incident is his situation of taking out the elephant.  With all of the Burmese behind him, he only ended up shooting the elephant so he wouldn't look like a fool.  He didn't really need to kill it.  It had calmed down and was merely eating when he finally found it in a field.  But with so many of the Burmese behind him, gathering in large groups, he felt obligated to take it down. 

This was how he felt about his position as an officer.  He didn't really believe in the British Empire and what they were doing in Burma and actually sided with the people there; however, they made his job very difficult because they had no idea how he felt.  To them, he was just another European who they could throw things at and ridicule. Being put in this position of shooting the elephant made him see the big picture of why he was there as an officer and how he truly felt about the oppressive British Empire.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team