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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell
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What is the irony of "Shooting an Elephant"?

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The principal irony in "Shooting an Elephant" is that although the story is a picture of colonialism, in which the British have placed themselves in charge of an Asian country, Orwell himself, as a British policeman, finds himself "controlled" by the crowd of Burmese people. It is as if the power dynamic we would expect to be in force has been reversed. This, at any rate, is the situation as Orwell perceives it. His major point is that the white man destroys his own freedom when he turns tyrant over other people.

The case of an elephant gone berserk seems at first to be a straightforward one, but because the animal's violent behavior is only temporary (due to an attack of "must"), Orwell's judgment in the moment is that there's no longer any need to kill it. The beast can presumably be recaptured by its owner without further mayhem. However, a huge crowd of "natives" has gathered, and Orwell, the "white man with the gun," feels egged on by them to do something decisive, even if it's wrong, so he shoots the elephant and does so inefficiently, with the result that shot after shot is required and the animal takes a long time to die. The death throes of the elephant are a metaphor for the whole dysfunctional dynamic that exists in a colonized land between the conqueror and "the natives."

Arguably, however, a secondary irony exists within Orwell's perception of the incident. As a man with progressive feelings, he knows that British imperialism is wrong, but his own personal attitude toward the Burmese, as he acknowledges himself, is a largely negative one. He describes being tripped up on the football field and being laughed at by the Burmese players, and he decries the fact that Buddhist priests are standing about "having nothing better to do than jeer at Europeans." It is ironic in the extreme that Orwell seems to regard himself as the principal victim in all of this. He makes a good point about the white man as a conqueror ironically destroying his own freedom, but even from his perspective of greater maturity in writing about the incident years after it has taken place, there is an element of narcissism in his viewing himself as more of a victim than the colonized people, whose freedom has been taken from them on a continuous basis and not merely in an isolated occurrence.

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In the persona that George Orwell projects in "Shooting an Elephant," he is a reluctant bureaucrat within the British imperial system. He does his job out of a sense of duty and to earn a living, but he does not give the impression of being especially invested in the ideologies of imperial control. Although he understands that the elephant poses a threat to the town and its people, he is not interested in shooting it.

To some extent, his insecurity about whether he would succeed in killing the huge animal plays a role in his reluctance. Yet Orwell understands that he must set his personal feelings aside and uphold the position assigned to him. Rather than performing as an obedient underlying to a superior administrative officer, however, Orwell must obey the masses of townspeople. It is their expectations of the role of an imperial functionary to which he must comply.

Although the British rulers often speak (pompously) of their responsibility to helping the people they control, in this case it is actually true: Orwell understands that the requirements of empire have been internalized by the subject peoples—they expect him to use the gun that was issued to him.

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Irony, or a contrast between what is expected and what occurs, develops in Orwell's essay because of the contradictory nature of imperialism. For, while it is the ruling power and issuer of cruelty and punishment, the imperialist government finds itself at times victimized by its own rules and, sometimes by its subjects. Orwell writes,

I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys...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 todo what the "natives" expect of him.

Thus, as a police officer for Great Britain, the colonial power, Orwell finds himself overpowered by both the Burmese people and by his own ego after he is called upon to investigate a rogue elephant. At first, Orwell answers the call with the intention of not shooting the elephant because doing so is "comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery; however, because the Burmese watch him, hoping to be able to laugh at him, Orwell knows that he cannot "come all that way...only to trail feebly away, having done nothing." Ironically, then, Orwell is dominated by those whom his government oppresses.

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.

So, Orwell acts against his conscience to keep from looking like a fool before the Burmese people who have followed him and watch him and he shoots the elephant.

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