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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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What is the purpose of the short story "Shooting an Elephant"?

The purpose of the short story "Shooting An Elephant" is to teach the reader about what life was really like for the Burmese under British occupation. As a result, the reader comes to understand why Orwell was "hated" by the Burmese.

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It could be argued that the purpose of “Shooting An Elephant” is to reveal how imperialism affects those who live in conquered countries. This story takes place in Moulmein, a town in Burma, which became a British colony in 1824. From the opening lines of the story, it is clear...

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that the Burmese hate their role as a subjugated people. Just look, for example, at how they treat Europeans: they spit on women’s dresses and insult, jeer, and even trip upOrwell during a football match. Since they cannot riot against the British for fear of reprisal, they express their anti-imperialist sentiments in small ways.

Later in the story, the reader gets a sense of why the Burmese feel such anger and resentment towards the British:

The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos.

Orwell does not hold back. His description of life for these prisoners is vivid and emotive. He wants the reader to understand why the Burmese feel such hatred towards the British and through his descriptions we get a sense of their plight.

At the end of the story, Orwell describes the aftermath of the shooting incident. He also tells us that in the minds of older British imperialists, the elephant was “worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.” This clearly demonstrates the real tyranny of imperialism: that the British believed they had the right to invade Burma and mistreat its citizens because they felt themselves to be racially and culturally superior.

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The primary purpose of Orwell's short story "Shooting an Elephant" is to illustrate the oppressive influence that imperialist regimes have on the agents who represent and uphold the image of their impenetrable empire. In the short story, a self-conscious British police officer stationed in Lower Burma is sent out to investigate a situation involving a runaway elephant. The British officer has no intention of shooting the majestic beast but is followed by a massive crowd of Burmese natives, who are anxious to see him kill the elephant. When the police officer finds the elephant calmly grazing, he experiences overwhelming pressure from the crowd to shoot the animal against his will. As the officer raises his gun, he experiences an epiphany and says,

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. 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 to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.

The British officer feels obligated to maintain a resolute, bold disposition at all times to appropriately represent the powerful imperialist regime that he works for. He also feels pressure to behave according to the natives' perception of him as a British officer, which is oftentimes against his will. Orwell is essentially depicting how agents of oppressive, imperialist regimes are forced to behave against their own will to uphold the image of the powerful empire they represent.

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The primary purpose of the story is to show the dehumanizing effects of colonialism, not just on indigenous people but on the colonialists themselves. On a personal level, Orwell doesn't want to shoot the elephant, but in his capacity as a colonial police officer, he knows that he must. It is expected of him not only by his superiors, but also by the native Burmese.

Orwell has been reduced to the status of a humble cog in the gigantic machinery of Empire. He has become almost like an automaton, incapable of exercising free choice. As such, he has no real choice when it comes to killing the elephant.

According to the imperialist worldview, there is no humanity as such; there are only superior and inferior races. And as a member of the so-called superior race, Orwell must act accordingly. In doing so, he's forced to renounce what makes him distinctively human and separate himself from those deemed inferior by his colonial masters.

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The purpose of George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant is to warn people about the danger of conforming to social norms. This dilemma is presented when the narrator is called to shoot an elephant that killed a Burmese man. Although the narrator first considers shooting the elephant to be murder, he ends up shooting the elephant anyway because he does not want to lose face among the Burmese. After the narrator shoots the elephant, he has trouble accepting that it was the correct choice despite the fact that the officers and the natives believed it to be the right thing to do. He concludes, “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.” Here, he directly states that he ultimately shot the elephant to conform to the social norms of the Burmese people, not because he thought it was the correct thing to do.

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The purpose is to convey the fact that doing what is legally acceptable and doing what is morally or ethically correct are not always compatible.

The narrator finds himself in the situation of looking like a cowardly fool in front of the Burmese if he does not shoot the elephant, but his conscience is weighing on him because he realizes that the elephant no longer poses a threat. Because the Burmese despise the British for their presence, the narrator feels the need to go against his conscience and shoot the elephant to save face.

After seeing the dead Burmese man that had been trampled by the elephant, his conscience is overcome with guilt. He realizes that like the dead man, the elephant was crucified, as well. While acting within legal limits, he realizes that it was not an ethical choice.

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