Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

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What is the summary of "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell?

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Kelvin Brakus eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell recounts some experiences from his time as a sub-divisional police officer in Burma. Specifically, he talks about how he was "hated" by the local population who "baited" him on regular occasions. In one example, he mentions being tripped up by a Burmese man while playing football.

In spite of the hatred he experienced, Orwell came to realize that the Burmese were not the real problem. In fact, the real problem was imperialism, something he understood when one day, he was asked to take care of an elephant which had broken free and began ravaging the town. The elephant had trampled and killed a local man. While Orwell had no intention of hurting the animal, he quickly realized that if he did not shoot it, he would become a laughing stock among the local population. Imperialism, therefore, demanded that he act in a swift and violent manner, a sentiment conveyed in the following lines:

The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.

Under such pressures, Orwell shoots the elephant and feels a sense of shame and remorse as it slowly dies. Later, there are arguments about whether Orwell was right to kill the animal. The locals enjoyed eating its meat but the owner was angry, since it was a working animal. Orwell himself was vindicated by the law, but always wondered if people realized that he only shot it to avoid "looking a fool," not because it was the right thing to do. 

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Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell is an essay first published in 1936 in a literary magazine called New Writing. Orwell, an English author, had been employed in Indian Imperial Police, part of the bureaucracy that administered and controlled Britain's vast empire, from 1922 to 1927. The essay is set in Moulmein in Burma, an area where elephants were used as draft animals. The narrator, probably Orwell himself, is British, with a traditional British upper class education, which focused primarily on learning the Greek and Latin classics, and utterly unprepared for his duties as an administrator and policeman. 

A Burmese man has been killed by an elephant in musth, or rut, a heightened frenzy due to the effects of a surge of testosterone in mating season. The narrator knows that once musth has passed, the elephant is no longer dangerous, and does not need to be killed; in fact the elephant has returned to a state of calm. The crowd, however, demands that Orwell kill the elephant. Orwell does so, but as he has only a small caliber rifle, the animal dies slowly and in great agony. Despite the approval of both whites and Burmese, the narrator feels brutalized by the experience. The essay is strongly anti-colonialist in tone. 

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