Shooting an Elephant Summary
In “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell draws on his own experiences of shooting an elephant in Burma. This elephant has been terrorizing a bazaar, but the narrator has serious misgivings about shooting it. He does it anyway, afraid of being considered weak.
- The narrator is a colonial policeman in British Burma who is hated by the local people.
- The narrator learns that an elephant is ravaging a bazaar. He arrives on the scene and prepares to kill the animal.
- The narrator realizes that unless he kills the elephant, the Burmese people will laugh at him.
- He shoots the elephant, who suffers an agonizing death.
Last Updated November 8, 2022.
Orwell begins by saying that when he was a police officer in Moulmein, Lower Burma, he was hated by many people, the only time he has ever been important enough for this to happen to him. The Burmese people loathed their British colonizers but had not enough courage for open rebellion. They expressed their bitterness in petty ways, spitting and jeering at any Europeans they saw. Orwell sympathized with them, in theory at least, and realized that the British imperial regime was oppressive. He detested his job, which meant that he saw “the dirty work of empire at close quarters.” Prisoners were flogged with bamboo canes and kept in filthy, stinking cages. However, Orwell was torn between his hatred of the tyrannical British Raj and his everyday anger at the abuse he received from the Burmese people around him.
One day, the sub-inspector at a police station on the other side of the town told Orwell that an elephant had got loose and was causing chaos in the bazaar. Orwell did not know how to respond, but he armed himself with a rifle and started out. As he went, various people told him what had happened. The elephant had broken its chain and destroyed a bamboo hut and turned over a van, as well as killing a cow and eating fruit from stalls. When he arrived at the quarter where the elephant had last been seen, there were various confused and conflicting reports of where it had gone. However, there was physical evidence in the form of a dead man whom the elephant had killed by putting its foot on his back and grinding him into the earth. When Orwell saw the corpse, he sent an orderly to borrow an elephant gun from a friend.
Some Burmans told Orwell that the elephant was in a nearby paddy field, and many more followed him, eager to see the elephant shot. Orwell, however, did not intend to shoot the elephant and felt foolish as he marched toward it with a large crowd behind him. The elephant was standing placidly near the road, eating grass and paying no attention to the approaching crowd. Orwell felt certain that he ought not to shoot such a valuable animal, which was now no danger to anyone. He decided to watch the elephant for a while to ensure that he remained calm, then go home.
When he looked behind him, however, Orwell saw a crowd of more than two thousand Burmese people staring expectantly at him. They were certain that he was going to shoot the elephant and regarded this as an exciting entertainment. They were watching Orwell as though he were “a conjurer about to perform a trick.” Orwell realized that he would be forced to shoot the elephant after all and understood for the first time the hollowness of his apparent position of power. He was not in control of the situation; he was the puppet of the crowd. When he had sent for the elephant gun, he had committed himself to shooting the elephant, and if he did not do so, he would look weak and foolish in front of the crowd, and they would all laugh at him.
As he watched the elephant, which looked peaceful and “grandmotherly,” it seemed to Orwell that killing him would amount to murder. Apart from this, a working elephant was worth a hundred pounds alive but would only be worth about five pounds—the value of his tusks—if he was shot. Orwell knew that the correct thing to do would be to test the elephant’s behavior by walking...
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toward him. If the elephant charged, he could shoot; if he remained docile, there was no danger. However, Orwell felt that he could not take this course of action. If the elephant charged, he might well miss the shot, and then he would be trampled into the mud in front of a huge crowd, some of whom would probably laugh. This would destroy his prestige, a fate worse than death for an Englishman in Burma.
Orwell loaded the gun, lay down on the road, and shot the elephant, to the accompaniment of a “deep, low, happy sigh” followed by a “devilish roar of glee” from the crowd. The elephant’s body sagged, and he suddenly looked terribly old. Orwell fired two more times, and at the third shot, the elephant fell to the ground with a crash. Even then, he was not dead, and Orwell could see him breathing rhythmically. He fired two more shots, but still the elephant did not die, even after Orwell sent for another rifle and “poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat.” Eventually, he went away, and he later heard that the elephant took half an hour to die. The crowd had stripped almost all the meat from his body by the afternoon.
This incident was followed by numerous discussions. The owner was angry but powerless, since he was an Indian, and Orwell was legally justified because the elephant had killed a man. The older Europeans in Moulmein said that Orwell was right to kill the elephant, while the younger men said it was a shame, as the elephant’s life was worth more than that of the Burman he had killed. Orwell wondered whether any of them realized that he had only shot the elephant “to avoid looking a fool.”