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

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morrowl16 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

renelane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.