Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

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At a Glance

  • The narrator is a British police officer in Burma. He's frequently the subject of ridicule and has come to hate his time in Burma. He doesn't want to shoot the elephant, but does it to "avoid looking a fool."
  • The narrator depicts the Burmese in a negative light, describing how they jeer at him, spit at Englishwomen, and enjoy watching him fail. One must keep in mind, however, that they are under imperial rule and are acting out against their oppressors.
  • The elephant has escaped from its owner, an Indian man. It seems content to eat grass until someone gets to close, at which point it attacks. The narrator feels justified in shooting the elephant in part because it has already killed a man.

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The Narrator

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

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...

(The entire section is 818 words.)