What reasons does Orwell give for the shooting of the elephant in "Shooting an Elephant"?
Orwell was a sub-divisional police officer of the British Empire in Burma when it was a colony under British rule. He was hated by the Burmese, who understandably resented his imperial presence. One day, he received a call about an escaped tame elephant ravaging a local bazaar; it had already destroyed stalls, a home, livestock, and a van. Even worse, the elephant had killed a man. Orwell notes, “As soon as I saw the dead man, I sent an orderly to a friend’s house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle.” This request grabbed the Burmese people’s rapt attention. When Orwell saw elephant peacefully eating in a paddy field, he approached it, and it seemed like “the whole population of the quarter” followed him as eager spectators to watch the shooting. He commented, “It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides, they wanted the meat.”
Orwell actually had not intended to shoot the animal, but carried the rifle in case he needed it for self-defense. He did not even want to execute it, but ultimately chose to for a few reasons. First, he felt pressure by the crowd (a “sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes”) that expected him to do so. Second, he realized that he was temporarily relieved of the Burmese people’s hatred: “They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching.” Third, he realized that out of pride and in order to uphold his status as a British officer in front of the Burmese, he felt compelled to carry out the shooting: “Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.”
In other words, if Orwell capitulated and did not execute the elephant, he would humiliate himself as well as the British Empire. He realized that
To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
He felt he had no choice but to appear strong and courageous in front of the Burmese people. So after the first shot, Orwell shot the elephant two more times in order to take it down. After seeing that the animal was still breathing, he shot it two more times. When those shots did not finish off the suffering animal, Orwell shot it repeatedly with his small rifle. He justified these shots by reasoning that he needed to put the elephant out of pain: “the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony … I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise.”
In the end, Orwell knew that the elephant’s killing of a man provided sufficient legal pretext for executing it. Nonetheless, he admitted that he had shot the elephant “solely to avoid looking a fool.”