Why did George Orwell shoot the elephant?
“I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”
The final statement of the autobiographical sketch ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is the answer to this question. To the natives of Burma, the author is the representative of the mighty British Empire. So he must act in a way that’s impressive as well as that is expected of a sahib.
To understand this better, one must speculate what the situation would have been had he not shot at the giant elephant. The author had been posted as a sub-divisional police officer in Burma, then a colony of the British Empire. Although he may be a strong condemner of British imperialism, he is still a representative of what he strongly despises.
Seeing the mutilated body of a villager, he sends an attendant to fetch an elephant rifle. He does so merely for self protection without any intention to kill the big animal. Seeing him with the gun, the villagers start following him, cheerfully expecting to witness the shooting of an elephant by a sahib. In no time the crowd multiplies to thousands. When he locates the elephant, he is relieved to find it grazing peacefully and harmlessly in a field. It’s no longer savage. The villagers are out of danger and so he must go back to the police station without causing the animal any harm.
But to the author’s stupefaction, over two thousand people have flocked to the place. Every eye seems to be expecting the author to fire a shot at the elephant. Backing away is not possible for him. If he does so, he would make himself ridiculous. He is a sahib and,
“A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things.”
An undue pressure seems to be mounting upon him. His position demands that he must “impress natives” and act in accordance with their expectations. His sympathy for the huge animal, his logic for not shooting the elephant and his strong reluctance to spare it can’t prevent him from shooting down the harmless large creature. Quite helplessly and against his wishes, he opens fire at the gigantic animal merely to avoid being laughed at and taken lightly.
Orwell did not originally intend to shoot the elephant as he realized it was no longer a threat. He only got the gun so that he could protect himself if need be. However, soon after his realization that the Elephant does not need to be killed he states,
"The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly."
So, Orwell shoots the elephant because he understands it is what the natives expect him to do. In order to maintain respect from the natives for the colonists he realizes he must do what is expected of him.