What was the main point of the essay "Shooting an Elephant" written by George Orwell?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An important point of George Orwell's "On Shooting an Elephant" is that colonial rule is ultimately evil.

In Orwell's opinion piece, it becomes apparent that he recognizes what he calls "the futility of the white man's dominion in the East" and the problematic nature of imperialism. It is impossible for one country to subjugate people from another country without hatred resulting. To maintain dominance over Burma, Orwell writes, British colonial rule exerts a particular cruelty to the Burmese. This "bloody work of Empire" involves beatings, imprisonment, and other acts of brutality. As a result, there is a mutual hatred between natives and Europeans. There is also an expectation in the Burmese of brutality from their colonial rulers.

Then, "[W]hen the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys," Orwell concludes. Orwell perceives his shooting of the rogue elephant as an act of cowardice. For he kills this majestic animal only to "avoid looking a fool" because of the natives' expectation of violence. As an officer of the British government, he feels that he has no choice but to shoot the elephant since the crowd anticipates this violence from him.

...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...that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East.

With his rifle in his hand and a native crowd behind him who are all unarmed, Orwell, nevertheless, feels that he is manipulated by the existence of the empire and his position in it. 

I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

Orwell shoots the elephant, not because it is dangerous. He shoots the magnificent creature because he must "impress" the natives, and it is what they expect of him. In this act, he loses his freedom because he really does not want to shoot the elephant, but he does so "solely to avoid looking the fool." Thus, he concludes that the concept of imperialism is irreconcilable with his moral assessment of the situation.  

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main point, the theme, of "Shooting an Elephant" is to expose the conflict between the law and one's moral conscience as this pertains to British imperialism specifically, but by extension any imperialism. Orwell makes his point in two major ways. First comes the decision of the narrator British police officer in Burma as to whether to shoot the rogue elephant or not. The very definition of rogue (having become savage and unpredictable) means that some sort of action is required in order to protect the people.

The narrator doesn't personally want to shoot the elephant and cause it to suffer a painful death but because of his position as the representative of British law he must and he does. Later he is torn with terrible emotions of pity at the sight of the elephant's death. He is also shown the body of a man who was trampled to death by the rogue elephant, a body in a sacrificial crucifixion position. As a result, the narrator has an epiphany (spiritual awakening) and realizes that even when acting within the law, the law can be at conflict with moral conscience and in the case of British imperialism, law does oppose conscience.

George Orwell drew upon his experiences as a British colonial official stationed in Burma and in India for writing "Shooting an Elephant." By the time he wrote this, he had already established a reputation for writing from a social conscience because of his nonfiction work Down and Out in London and Paris (1933) and novel Burmese Days (1934). Critics are divided as to whether "Shooting an Elephant is an essay or a short story.