Shooting an Elephant Characters
The main characters in “Shooting an Elephant” are the narrator, the Burmese people, and the elephant.
- The narrator is a British police officer in Burma. He doesn’t want to shoot the elephant, but he does to “avoid looking a fool.”
- The Burmese people jeer at the narrator, spit at English women, and enjoy watching the narrator fail. As they are under imperial rule, these actions are rebellion against their oppressors.
- The elephant has escaped from its owner and killed a man. The narrator feels partially justified in shooting the elephant because of the damage it has done.
Orwell doesn’t give his narrator a name, but it is obvious that the narrator is based on Orwell himself. Both men served as police officers in Burma, and both came to abhor the imperialist British regime. Like Orwell, the narrator has a primarily negative experience in Burma, where he is often bullied and ridiculed by superiors, Burmese citizens, and even Buddhist monks, who stand on street corners and jeer at him as he walks through town. Through the narrator’s eyes, readers are given a small window into life in Burma, with the local football matches, the filthy prisons, and the obvious resentment the Burmese feel toward the British. The narrator describes being tripped in front of a large crowd. He is frequently the butt of jokes. He has seen people spit betel juice at Englishwomen out of spite.
It comes as no surprise that the Burmese aren’t helpful in the narrator’s search for the elephant. Their stories are contradictory: some say the elephant went one way, some another, and some claim not to have seen an elephant at all. This frustrates the narrator and makes him hate his job even more. He is already disillusioned with the empire at the time this event takes place and has decided he wants out of the Burmese police force. It isn’t worth the ridicule, he realizes, and he is morally opposed to all of the oppression he witnesses. Nevertheless, he doesn’t particularly feel sympathy for the Burmese. In fact, he hates most of them now as a result of their ridicule and even states that “the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” He doesn’t like interacting with them. When it comes time for the narrator to confront the mad elephant that has been terrorizing his town, the narrator is painfully aware of the fact that the crowd is watching his every move. When he prepares to shoot the elephant, he knows that the crowd is secretly hoping he will be “pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse.” He kills the elephant, he admits, “to avoid looking a fool.”
The Burmese People
Overall, the narrator depicts the Burmese in a negative light. He describes how they treat him, how they laugh at him in the streets and trip him during football games and impede his work as a police officer for the British Empire. Surprisingly enough, the Buddhist monks are the worst of the lot and seem to do nothing but stand on street corners and jeer at the English and, presumably, foreigners in general. Their anger is justified, of course, and stems directly from the oppressive imperial rule that the British have imposed upon Burma. In the end, the Burmese hate the British because they want to be independent from the Empire, and the narrator hates the Burmese because he is part of the empire (if not exactly an imperialist). The Burmese’s ill-treatment of the English is as much about resistance as it is about entertainment: they enjoy seeing the narrator fail, and it seems they would like nothing more than to watch him get trampled by the elephant. As the narrator prepares to shoot the elephant, “a deep, low, happy sigh” breathes through the crowd. It is almost as if they are watching a show. This characterizes the crowd as a group of onlookers more interested in the spectacle of the shooting than in the lives of those involved. This may seem heartless, even cruel, and it is hard for Orwell’s modern-day readers to read about this...
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shooting, given contemporary laws against animal cruelty.
Orwell saves his kindest descriptions for the elephant, who appears “no more dangerous than a cow” when the narrator first sees it. Though the animal has undoubtedly caused havoc in the area and has even killed a man who dared get too close to it, it is still a formidable, perhaps even regal, animal who seems to want nothing more than to be left alone to eat grass. This elephant, we learn, is owned by a local Indian man who failed to properly corral it. It is, in that light, a prisoner seeking freedom from oppression and thus acts as a foil for the Burmese people, who are likewise suffering under imperial rule. When the narrator shoots the elephant, he is acting in the role of a British imperialist oppressing the people, here symbolized by the elephant. His first shot doesn’t kill the animal, however. Instead, the elephant stands up, trumpeting one last time before falling to the ground. The narrator then takes a rifle and shoots the elephant several times in the throat, but the elephant, with its tough, regal hide, refuses to die for another hour or more. The narrator later learns that the Burmese stripped the meat off the elephant’s body and left nothing but the bones.