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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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Shooting An Elephant Thesis

What is the thesis of "Shooting an Elephant"?

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Orwell's thesis is that bad systems, such as imperialism, cause unnecessary suffering to everyone involved: the colonized, the colonizers, and even the animals.

As "Shooting an Elephant" illustrates, a social and economic system built on violence and oppression has a corrosive and corrupting influence on everyone. As he deals with the Burmese, the narrator realizes that he is no longer his own person. He is a representative of the British Empire. He has to leave his common sense and human faculties of compassion behind because he feels forced to play out a role. His moves, like those of the oppressed Burmese people, have been locked in place by the system in which they are all caught. Orwell has to shoot the elephant, senseless and cruel as that act is, because he has to uphold the power of the British Empire.

Orwell's point is to critique systemic evil. The incident with the elephant merely crystallizes what he already knew:

For at that time 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.

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If you consider the thesis of Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" to be directly stated, you probably want to point to a sentence in paragraph seven:

...when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

In the essay, Orwell describes how he lost the ability to act morally.  The elephant appeared to have already passed out of "must," and did not, at that moment, need to be destroyed.  Faced with the mob, however, Orwell cannot afford to buck the mentality of that mob.  The mob is waiting for some excitement and entertainment, and he cannot afford to disappoint its members.  As Orwell describes the scene, the fact that he is surrounded by locals is emphasized, and this highlights the overwhelming numbers of people that must be controlled by a relatively few British.  Orwell cannot afford to show any sign of weakness.  Thus, he feels, he is forced to kill the elephant.  He loses his freedom to act morally.

If the thesis is implied, rather than directly stated, then it deals with a similar but more detailed thought.  Based on the description of the locals, we see that they, too, have been changed by imperialism.  The Buddhist monks, for instance, seemed to have nothing "to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans," according to Orwell.  If the thesis is implied, therefore, it deals with the idea that both the colonizers and the colonized are negatively changed by imperialism.  Imperialism comes at a cost to both imperialists and their victims.     


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