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George Orwell’s short essay "Shooting an Elephant" is about a colonial official, a police officer in the service of the British Empire, killing a magnificent beast, as he states at the end, “solely to avoid looking a fool.” As the preceding text illustrates, the fatal encounter – fatal for the elephant, that is – occurs because Orwell felt obligated to live up to the indigenous population’s expectations. The elephant had run amuck, killing a native “coolie” in the process and causing material damage to property. Orwell respects the elephant as the massive dominating animal that it was – an animal acting in the only manner an animal could possibly be expected to act. His frame of mind, however, is shaped by the surrounding army of local Burmese who despise him but who view him appropriately enough as the representative of a great power possessed of the means and authority to resolve the crisis "with extreme prejudice" (to borrow a phrase from another indictment of Western imperialism). As Orwell writes with respect to the pressures he was feeling to kill the elephant despite his belief that the animal should be left alone:
“. . .I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. . . I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes—faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly 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 feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.”
Orwell shoots the elephant because, as he observed, “a white man mustn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives’.” This lone colonial official feels compelled to do something he believes is wrong because his position as a colonial police officer demands he act decisively and in a manner consistent with the expectations of those he rules. In other words, the representative of the most powerful empire in the world is reduced to acting, in effect, as the servant of the basest instincts of the conquered. Orwell is, in the end, forced to take solace in the death of the aforementioned coolie because it provides a sort of legal justification for the killing of the elephant. Deep down inside, however, he knows he has caved in to the pressures of the moment and acted immorally. This once loyal servant of the Empire has evolved into its ultimate critic but, in the process, cannot muster the courage necessary to do what is right.
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