Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

At the very beginning of ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ Orwell notes that during his tenure as a colonial policeman in Burma many people hated him. Furthermore, as a writer of nonpartisan political criticism (paying equal attention to the strengths and weaknesses of all sides), Orwell attracted, and still attracts, his share of personal attacks. As Paul Johnson notes in Intellectuals (1988), ‘‘Orwell had always put experience before theory,’’ and when experience showed that the political Left, with which he had previously identified himself, was just as capable of error as the Right, he said so. Thus the critical tradition concerning Orwell’s work generally and his politically charged writings, including ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ is controversial.

Readers can glean a sense of how those who favor Orwell tend to treat him from Paul Johnson’s remark that, for Orwell, ‘‘human beings mattered more than abstract ideas.’’ The general position of those who denounce Orwell shows up in Terry Eagleton’s pronouncement about Burmese Days: that it ‘‘is less a considered critique of imperialism than an exploration of private guilt,’’ an offense in Eagleton’s eyes. If the reader accepts Eagleton’s premise that political concerns should outweigh personal ones, then the final sentence of the story: ‘‘I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool’’ is unacceptable. In a recent article in the journal Academic Questions, Steve Kogan has tallied recent criticism of Orwell and finds it to be overwhelmingly in the Eagletonian vein.

An interesting aspect of commentary on‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ is whether it is a story or an autobiographical essay. In favor of the latter, Peter Davison points out,...

(The entire section is 428 words.)