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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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Last Updated on November 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 824

George Orwell was an Imperial Police officer in Burma, which at the time was a province of British India, between 1922 and 1927. He had been born in India, where his father worked in the Opium Department of the Imperial Civil Service, in 1903 but spent most of his childhood in England, where he won scholarships first to St. Cyprian’s School, then to Eton College. Such academic distinction would normally have preceded an undergraduate career at Oxford or Cambridge, but the family could not afford this without another scholarship, for which Orwell’s marks were insufficient. It was therefore decided that he should take the entrance examination for the Indian Imperial Police and return to the country of his birth.

The previous paragraph refers to George Orwell, the author of “Shooting an Elephant,” which was published under that name in New Writing in the fall of 1936. The man who shot the elephant, however, was known as Eric Blair. He adopted the pseudonym by which he is now known all over the world for the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, in 1933. His next book, and first novel, Burmese Days, appeared in 1934.

Orwell’s biographers have made much of the distinction between Eric Blair the reluctant imperialist oppressor and George Orwell the socialist dissident. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams split their two-volume study of Orwell’s life and work into The Unknown Orwell and Orwell: The Transformation, claiming that the writer underwent a dramatic metamorphosis at the age of thirty when he adopted his pseudonym. David Caute, in Dr. Orwell and Mr. Blair, goes a step further, suggesting a split between the two personae reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When he came to write “Shooting an Elephant,” perhaps the best known of his essays, Orwell had already fictionalized his experience of Burma in Burmese Days, one of his lesser-known novels. The line between fact and fiction in Orwell’s work is never entirely clear. Some editors have categorized “Shooting an Elephant” as a short story rather than an essay, perhaps a tribute to its vividity and dramatic qualities rather than a slight on Orwell’s veracity. In any case, it is clearly a description of something that happened to a young man very different from the thirty-three-year-old author, writing almost a decade after he left Burma.

Orwell takes care not to invest his younger self with his current political opinions. If not quite an Everyman figure, the man who shoots the elephant is portrayed as a fairly typical Anglo-Indian official. At the end of the essay he depicts the club bores and bigots opining that “an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.” This, however, is the mask of the sahib about which he has already written convincingly, the same attitude that actuated him to shoot the elephant in the first place. In the second paragraph he says that any Imperial official, “if you can catch him off duty,” will probably admit to a conflict of feelings similar to the one he describes in himself.

Ten years after “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell set out his agenda as a writer in an essay called “Why I Write.” In it he explains that he did not initially want to write about politics but felt compelled to do so by the atrocities of the age in which he lived. His first ambition was to be a more conventional novelist who concentrated on description, character, and language:

I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions...

(This entire section contains 824 words.)

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and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first completed novel,Burmese Days, which I wrote when I was thirty but projected much earlier, is rather that kind of book.

Although the name “George Orwell” appeared on the cover of Burmese Days, the transformation from Blair to Orwell was not yet complete. The protagonist, John Flory, a clear proxy for the author, hates his role as a colonial oppressor in Burma but is more concerned with his own loneliness and the possibility of romance than any of the political ramifications of empire.

Two years later, in “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell’s didactic purpose has become clear. He signals it early, remarking at the beginning of the third paragraph that the incident he is about to describe was enlightening “in a roundabout way.” This, however, is typical of Orwell’s understatement. The essay is an evisceration of imperialism, rapidly piling up evidence against the multitude of vices this system produces: cowardice, cruelty, dishonesty, spite, bigotry, and many more. It centers around an act of pointless slaughter in which the perpetrator is bullied into doing something he does not want to do in order to look powerful. The resulting irony sounds like nothing so much as one of the Party slogans from 1984: “Power is Impotence.”