Why is the dead coolie described in paragraph 4 of "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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George Orwell is a member of the Indian Imperial Police, and both as a white man and as a man with this position he is considered by the Indian people to be an oppressor. His short essay "Shooting an Elephant" recounts an incident which exemplifies both his position in this society and his own view of his position. 

At the beginning of the narrative, a tame elephant has broken free in the panic of his "must" and is bulldozing his way recklessly through town. Because he is expected to as an official presence in the city, Orwell follows after the elephant to...well, to do something. He makes it clear to us many times that he does not want to kill the elephant and in fact he does not even have a gun with him, but he was rather shamed into doing something and off he goes. 

What he sees does not move him to change his intent let to the elephant live, but soon he sees something that forces him to change course. He turns a corner and sees

a man's dead body sprawling in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth. This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony....The friction of the great beast's foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. 

Once he sees this, Orwell sends someone to borrow an elephant rifle.

One purpose this description serves in this narrative is that of inciting action. It is this event which propels Orwell into a real elephant hunt; without this, Orwell would undoubtedly not have killed the elephant.

A second reason the incident is included is to set up a contrast between this dead coolie (peasant) and the dead elephant. While the coolie's body is depicted graphically, there is no emotion in the description. It is matter-of-fact and emotionless, despite the visible agony on the man's face. In contrast, the elephant's death is much more emotional and dramatic. In fact, the description of its death covers the better part of two paragraphs as the animal slowly dies.

Finally, this dead man lying trampled carelessly in the mud is symbolic. If we were to rate or rank the two deaths, man and animal, surely the man's death would be more horrific than the elephant's. He was smashed and crushed and stripped of his skin. In fact, the visual image is symbolically that of a man on a cross, a kind of sacrificial figure who has been figuratively and literally trampled by the more powerful forces in society, represented by a runaway elephant, of course. 

The only real conclusion we can draw from this juxtaposition is that the elephant has a greater value in this society than a human life. Whether that is Orwell's personal belief or not (and it is clear from the rest of his life and writings that he did not believe that some humans are "less equal than others," to quote another Orwell work), it is the belief of this society. By putting more emphasis on a dead animal than on a dead man, Orwell is demonstrating the inequity and devaluation of mankind in this society.

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