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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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What are the people's feelings towards the elephant in "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell?

Quick answer:

the Burmese are more concerned with property damage than the life of the elephant. The narrator, however, is unsure if he wants to shoot the elephant, but feels that he has no other choice in order to save lives and property.

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There is a general sense that the people in the city, both the locals and the police officers, are afraid of what the elephant may do in terms of damage, but one also senses that the elephant being loose is not a particularly uncommon occurrence. The police officer asks the...

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narrator to "come and do something about it" almost wearily, without any particular surprise at the "ravaging" that is occurring. The Burmese feel "helpless" against the elephant and would like someone to stop it in its destruction of their property, but interestingly, the narrator says they "had not shown much interest in the elephant when it was ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be shot."

For them, the idea of the elephant being shot is "a bit of fun." They do not feel, seemingly, any sense of sympathy for the elephant, nor even do they seem to feel the anxiety the narrator feels about shooting a working elephant, which is effectively "a huge and costly piece of machinery." In the narrator, there is also a sense of some personal sentiment in that he "did not in the least want to shoot him." Sensibly, however, the narrator does realize the huge power of the elephant and that, if anything were to go wrong, he would be "pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse."

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In "Shooting an Elephant," the colonial officers are concerned about the elephant. The sub-inspector who calls Orwell, for example, says the elephant is "ravaging" the area and he wants action to be taken. 

In contrast, the locals are not especially concerned by the elephant, even when it kills an Indian man. They are more interested in the thrill of the chase and the prospect of receiving some meat:

It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat.

To provide additional contrast, Orwell's narrator believes the elephant will eventually calm down and that there is no reason to harm it:

I thought then and I think now that his attack of "must" was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him.

Moreover, while shooting the elephant is "a bit of fun" for the locals, it creates a serious ethical dilemma for Orwell: he has no desire to harm this great animal, but knows he must take action. If he does not, the locals will laugh at him and he will lose his credibility as an imperial official.

It is these contrasting viewpoints which create the story's conflict and demonstrate the true and evil nature of imperialism.

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