Shooting an Elephant Questions and Answers
by George Orwell

Shooting an Elephant book cover
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What is the lesson the narrator learned in "Shooting An Elephant"? Explain the lesson or how the experience changed the narrator.

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Orwell, in his "Shooting an Elephant" persona (based on his real-life experiences as a colonial policeman in Burma) comes to understand what he considers the true reason despotic governments act as they do. Despotic governments seek to control and manipulate their own people. In his famous and much-quoted epiphany, he realizes that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys."

Orwell's persona declares repeatedly that "I did not want to shoot the elephant." He does so, he says, only because the crowd of Burmese people is egging him on, expecting him to do something decisive because he is "the white man with the gun." He's an operative of a colonial power, so he's the man in charge, a kind of Mister Big in the imperialist world. His greatest fear, he admits to us, is that he'll be laughed at by the crowd, and at the conclusion he says he killed the elephant solely in order to avoid "looking a fool."

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Orwell's observations. At the same time he appears to view the whole scenario in a blinkered way. If we consider that the white man has destroyed his own freedom by taking over other countries, it's still only low-level functionaries such as himself to whom this applies. The ruling class, the government big-wigs, and company owners back in London were and still are aggrandizing their own power by exploiting (i.e., stealing) the resources of what came to be called the "third world." Orwell himself recognizes elsewhere. The ruling class was not destroying their own freedom. In a subtextual sense, Orwell may be realizing that a working person such as himself has more in common with the Burmese people than he has with the capitalist class of his own country. But he doesn't make this the real point, the actual thesis of his narrative. He admits that being a colonial functionary in Burma has caused him reflexively to dislike "the natives," and he knows this is wrong, as we would hope any progressive person of his time (and later) would realize. However, the main point of his story comes across as an almost narcissistic one. His concern is chiefly about himself and his own predicament, rather than with the far worse situation in which the colonized people find themselves.

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