Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

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What is the main point of the essay "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One could argue that the main point of "Shooting an Elephant" is to show how colonialism corrupts the soul: not just the souls of those who are subject to colonial repression, but also the souls of the colonists themselves.

The colonial policeman in the story—clearly based on Orwell himself—doesn't really want to kill the elephant. But he knows that he must do so in order to satisfy the expectations of his superiors as well as those of the indigenous Burmese. In this way, the policeman's soul has been corrupted by his duties as a colonial functionary.

In the process, the policeman becomes someone he isn't. The indigenous people hate him without knowing anything about him as a person. All they see is a colonial authority figure. As such, they expect him to shoot the elephant. But the real man beneath the uniform doesn't want to do that. He's still the same person he ever was, even though his soul has been corrupted. The very fact that he's so uneasy about shooting the elephant shows that he still retains something of his humanity, though how much longer that will last after he's performed this latest act of duty is a matter of debate.

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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An important point of George Orwell's "On Shooting an Elephant" is that colonial rule is ultimately evil.

In Orwell's opinion piece, it becomes apparent that he recognizes what he calls "the futility of the white man's dominion in the East" and the problematic nature of imperialism. It is impossible for one country to subjugate people from another country without hatred resulting. To maintain dominance over Burma, Orwell writes, British colonial rule exerts a particular cruelty to the Burmese. This "bloody work of Empire" involves beatings, imprisonment, and other acts of brutality. As a result, there is a mutual hatred between natives and Europeans. There is also an expectation in the Burmese of brutality from their colonial rulers.

Then, "[W]hen the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys," Orwell concludes. Orwell perceives his shooting of the rogue elephant as an act of cowardice. For he kills this majestic animal only to "avoid looking a fool" because of the natives' expectation of violence. As an officer of the British government, he feels that he has no choice but to shoot the elephant since the crowd anticipates this violence from him.

...I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it: I could...

(The entire section contains 3 answers and 854 words.)

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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