What does the elephant do in the story "Shooting an Elephant?"

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Vikash Lata eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The mute, giant elephant stands at the centre of the main action in this memorable autobiographical sketch by George Orwell. It is the elephant that sets the whole drama in motion. It’s not a wild elephant but a tame one who is under “the attack of ‘must’” and so it’s “ravaging the bazaar.

The narrator is posted as sub-divisional police officer in the village when the elephant starts wreaking havoc in the village. When he sees the badly mutilated body of a villager, he orders an elephant rifle. He does so only for self protection.

The moment when the narrator encounters the elephant, it’s grazing harmlessly in a field. The attack of ‘must’ has passed off. Now it is “no more dangerous than a cow.” The narrator sees no point in shooting it anymore. Still he shoots it dead.

The narrator does so against his will. Actually, he succumbs to an inexorable force that the expectations of thousands of Burmese exercise upon him. He is a 'sahib' and he can’t back off. He has been following the elephant and now when it stands only few meters away, he is expected to shoot it.

At the very outset, the narrator makes it clear that what he’s going to share is an “enlightening” though “tiny incident in itself.

“One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism--the real motives for which despotic governments act.”

After reading the sketch, one realizes that this discovery by the narrator has been possible only because of the elephant. It’s a pity that that it’s killed merely to keep up appearances. However, by dying a pitiable death, that was avoidable, the elephant “enlightens” the narrator about “the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East.”