What is the persona of George Orwell's Shooting an Elephant?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Given that George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant is told in the first-person, and is reflective of some aspects of Orwell’s own life, determining the persona of his story is a little difficult.  One could logically conclude that the story is autobiographical, as Orwell and his narrator were British policemen in British-occupied Burma, and both Orwell and his narrator had grown to despise colonialism with all its excesses and injustices, especially the degree to which imperialism degraded the moral fabric of the colonial power far more than damaged the culture of the indigenous peoples subjected to harsh outside rule.  It is entirely possible, therefore, that Shooting an Elephant is a direct recitation of the author’s own experiences as a minor cog in the enforcement arm of the British Empire. 

The parallels between Orwell’s life and the details described in his short story are too prominent to ignore.  As noted, Orwell was a staunch critic in his native England regarding European colonialism, and the protagonist in Shooting an Elephant is a little too meditative for the average British low-level colonial administrator or policeman.  Orwell’s know position on imperialism is reflected in the following passage from  his story, in which the policeman is describing his attitude towards colonialism and the morally corrosive effect it has on those sent to impose it upon others:

“I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lockups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos—all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.”

Shooting an Elephant, of course, is about a British policeman’s response to alarms about a rampaging elephant and about his internal deliberations regarding his responsibilities.  Elephants in the wild are magnificent beasts that tower over all other species on land.  To shoot one simply because it is doing the only thing it knows how to do, and taking into account the fact that it ought not to have been captured and removed from its natural habitat in the first place, makes the elephant a particularly sympathetic target, at least in the eyes of an enlightened bureaucrat.  As Orwell’s narrator notes, “I did not in the least want to shoot him.”  The countervailing pressures from the thousands of indigenous peoples who were no fully engaged in this bit of entertainment, however, were too much to ignore.  The narrator’s rationale for deciding to shoot the elephant, even though it has calmed down is innocently eating vegetation, is his perceived need to pacify that crowd:

“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. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. 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. I had got to shoot the elephant.”

That’s a lengthy quote for a relatively short answer, but its inclusion is warranted by what it reveals about the deleterious effects on the human soul of policies from above that compel inhumane actions in defense of morally indefensible practices.  After the narrator shoots the elephant, a more protracted process than he had imagined, he returns to his station to reflect on the day’s events, and on the underlying motivations behind his decision to shoot.  He is justified in his action by virtue of the elephant’s having killed a seriously poor Indian, “a black Dravidian coolie,” whose tragic death provides the pretext for the use of lethal action against the offending animal.  At the end of the day, however, Orwell’s narrator – possibly Orwell himself – acknowledges that he killed the elephant not because of any threat it posed to society, but because he, the white representative of the British Empire, was expected to kill it for the benefit of the masses of indigenous locals expecting it.  As he ends his story, Orwell’s narrator concedes, “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done solely to avoid looking a fool.”  And, we all know a representative of a great global power cannot afford to look the part of a fool.  In this respect, one can logically conclude that the persona of the story is the anonymous colonial policeman speaking on behalf of the author, whose life bore a striking resemblance to the protagonist of the story.

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