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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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In "Shooting an Elephant," how does George Orwell perceive imperialism?

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Orwell sees the real nature of imperialism as a corrupting, psychological force that negatively affects members of the imperial regime to act against their will to impress the local people. Imperialism not only exploits and oppresses the conquered people but undermines the individuality and morals of those associated with the ruling government. His thoughts regarding imperialism are best summed up by the quote, "When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys."

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In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell examines the psychological effects of imperialism on members of the ruling European regime by illustrating his conflicting feelings as a British officer stationed in Lower Burma. Instead of closely analyzing the British Empire's discriminatory practices and exploitative measures, Orwell focuses on the unintentional outcomes of imperialism and the internal conflicts he experienced as a privileged officer in a foreign land.

Although Orwell is a British policeman, he privately condemns imperialism and supports Burmese independence. However, Orwell grows to hate the natives, who continually mock, jeer, and ridicule him whenever they get the opportunity. He experiences an "intolerable sense of guilt" for associating with the British regime but simultaneously desires to "drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts." Orwell comments on the remarkable dilemma by stating that these conflicting feelings are "normal by-products of imperialism."

In addition to experiencing difficult, conflicting feelings regarding the plight of the Burmese natives, Orwell also discovers that imperialism forces one to act against their will and transforms them into resolute, obedient servants of the people. After he is deployed to handle a situation regarding a loose elephant, Orwell is followed by a large crowd, which surrounds him when he confronts the tranquil beast. Although Orwell has no desire to shoot the elephant, he succumbs to peer pressure and acts against his will.

At this moment, Orwell discovers that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." Orwell acknowledges that his duty is to "impress the natives" at all costs and live up to their expectations. In doing so, Orwell metaphorically wears a mask, and "his face grows to fit it." As an agent of the British Empire, Orwell is expected to behave like a violent, cruel soldier and assumes a tough exterior, which destroys his individuality and undermines his morals. Orwell understands that imperialism not only oppresses the conquered natives but also enslaves those in power. It is a corrupt system that not only exploits foreigners but negatively influences members of the regime to act against their will and experience internal conflicts.

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In many of his writings, Orwell views imperialism as a mechanism for economic power, for enabling the Western nations to have a higher standard of living by exploiting underdeveloped countries. However, in "Shooting an Elephant" he goes further and develops the theme of imperialism as a means by which the industrialized countries control their own populations.

In the narrative Orwell makes it clear that the British are hated by the Burmese, but also that Orwell, a British policeman, has no love either for the "native" population, including the seemingly benign Buddhist priests. It is impossible even for a policeman or a soldier having the best of intentions, and the most liberal mindset, to feel favorable to people who are constantly jeering him and taunting him on the street. The elephant incident brings these emotions of mutual dislike to a head.

Though the "natives" obviously resent the British presence, they also seem to have adopted the attitude that since the white man has put himself in charge, he is the one who can and must take care of all problems. When the elephant goes "must," running wild and causing havoc (including killing a laborer by stamping him into the ground), Orwell has no choice but to take action. He repeats over and over that "I did not want to kill the elephant," for he realizes that the attack of "must" is already passing. The elephant will soon become harmless again, and can be recaptured by its owner, with no further death or damage. Yet a crowd has gathered, urging him to neutralize the elephant, as it were. Because he's the white man, he is expected to act, despite his not wanting to, and despite the fact that the crowd of Burmese are not capable of forcing him to. It is to save face that Orwell must pull the trigger and kill the elephant.

It is at this point, as he holds the rifle, that Orwell has an epiphany about why imperialist countries act as they do. He has been put in a position—that of being forced to do something unnecessary and against his own moral code—where he lacks freedom, though as the white man he's supposed to be the one in charge. "When the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys....He becomes a hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib." In other words, both conquered and conqueror have become enchained as a result of the imperialist government's power-lust. The difficulty of killing the elephant, when Orwell has to pour shot after shot into him, is symbolic of the dysfunctionality and cruelty of the whole situation. When the elephant is felled, a shout of triumph goes up from the crowd, probably partly because they have at least unconsciously realized that this is a victory over not just the elephant, but over the British invaders as well.

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What is Orwell saying about colonialism in "On Shooting an Elephant"?

The situation in which the narrator, presumably Orwell, finds himself in "On Shooting an Elephant" is unique in that there is no correct choice facing him. This is not because both choices have their pros and cons, but because both seem equally terrible and unappealing. When taking aim at the elephant, the narrator is in a situation that is simultaneously horrifying and humiliating, tragic and farcical, to name only a few of the strange, existential paradoxes that face him in that decisive moment. The statement that is being made about colonialism is one of overwhelming futility.

The European presence in the Far East is, from the point of view of the narrator, absolutely useless. It is a vanity project by elites that have no knowledge or care of the cultures that they consistently dominate. The colonial presence is a bumbling and clumsy titan of industry and military might, making a mess wherever it sets foot. Even people like the narrator who are sympathetic to the Burmese natives cannot be taken seriously or seen as people due to the uniform that they wear. The choice to brutally slaughter an animal that will inflict no further harm simply to maintain an air of authority that the shooter already believes to be a farce is an absolutely ridiculous choice—one that could only be made in the ridiculous circumstances of colonialism. The British rule does not belong; it is only absolute because it forced itself in.

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What is Orwell saying about colonialism in "On Shooting an Elephant"?

"Shooting an Elephant" shows the corrupting effects that colonialism can have on people, even those who are part of the system. The narrator of the story is profoundly uneasy at having to carry out his duty as a colonial police officer in Burma. He doesn't want to shoot the rampaging elephant; he knows that it's a valuable commodity in the colonial economy—but he also knows that the natives are watching, and any sign of weakness or lack of resolve on his part will undermine the authority of both himself and his superiors.

This is what colonialism does to people, Orwell is arguing. The colonial policeman has been corrupted in that he's forced to do something he doesn't really want to do and which he knows just isn't right. The Burmese, for their part, as well as being exploited and kept in a state of subjection by their colonial overlords, have also been corrupted. Although they resent the representative of colonial law and order in their midst, they nonetheless expect him to assert his authority in the face of a wild animal on the loose. In their own way, they are as conflicted in their emotions as the colonial policeman, and once again, it's the colonialist system that's largely responsible for this mentality.

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What is Orwell saying about colonialism in "On Shooting an Elephant"?

In this essay, Orwell is arguing that colonialism is a systemic evil. What he attempts to illustrate, through the story the narrator tells, is that the individual people living in Burma, whether natives or colonizers, are not inherently evil. However, they are all caught up in a system that causes them, against their better impulses, to behave in stupid and evil ways.

The narrator, for example, is inherently a sensible and moral person who knows he is caught up in a situation he would like to escape. He realizes the system of governance on Burma is corrupting him: for instance, he doesn't want to hate the Burmese but he does. He is so fed up that he fantasizes about killing them. Likewise, he doesn't want to kill the no-longer rampaging elephant. He knows it is both a wasteful and a cruel act. He knows he is inflicting suffering on the animal, which takes a long time to die. He knows he is only doing it to uphold the illusion that the British are all powerful.

The narrator knows he carries out the killing simply to prop up an unsustainable system of colonialism, one that corrupts its participants by putting appearance ahead of reality and valuing the display of power more than humanitarianism.

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What is Orwell saying about colonialism in "On Shooting an Elephant"?

Editors can answer only one question at a time; so try to use your answer to this question for your comparison between "Elephant" and Things Fall Apart.

In "On Shooting an Elephant," Orwell demonstrates his internal conflict with the ideals of Colonialism. Orwell shoots the elephant which is a symbol of the British Empire or Imperialism in general; however, he does so with reservation, in part to save the Burmese people who are in danger of being trampled by the animal. Orwell's struggle arises from the knowledge that he is in Burma to "serve" the British Empire, and yet, he has realized that the Empire is "trampling" on the Burmese just as the literal elephant does. Orwell views this as a possible prediction of what might happen to Britain if it continues to oppress the native people of its empire.

As a whole, Orwell portrays Colonialism as an unsustainable ideology which imposes its standards and culture upon native peoples. He warns through his essay that the ruling country will either one day self destruct or be destroyed by those whom it has oppressed.

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In Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant," does  the elephant become a metaphor for colonial rule?

According to critic Thomas Bertonneau, the elephant of Orwell's essay symbolizes the pervasive corruption of imperialism as it affects both sides since imperialism corrupts the souls of both the conqueror and the conquered. This powerful animal, crushing whatever comes in its path, represents the conqueror; then, once the animal becomes rogue, it represents the resentment of the Burmese. Also, as a fallen symbol of the imperial government, the elephant induces the rapacity of the Burmese, who wish to take the flesh of this elephant in order to tyrannize something themselves.

When Orwell as a police official must respond to a call that an elephant was ravaging a bazaar, he finds himself "feeling two thousand wills pressing me forward."  At this point, he realizes that, as a respresentative of the imperial government, he is compelled to shoot the elephant although he does not wish to do so.

...at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands,...I grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East....I perceived...that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

To prevent the Burmese, who challenge his power, from laughing at him, Orwell shoots the elephant "to avoid looking like a fool." Like the British colonial rule, Orwell's power turns itself upon him.

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How does Orwell present British imperialism in his essay "Shooting an Elephant"?

In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell's narrator shows the problems with British imperialism. He argues that it is an evil system that hurts everyone involved in it.

First, it harms the native Burmese who are caught under the harsh thumb of British rule. He discusses how, as an imperial police officer, he saw the "dirty work" of Empire up close in the "cowed faces" and "scarred buttocks" of the Burmese prisoners.

Second, he talks about the dehumanizing effect imperialism has on the ruling class. He says that he himself gets tired of the passive aggression and underhanded hatred of the Burmese that is directed at the British. He states that

the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

Third, he argues that maintaining the system of imperialism leads to cruel and irrational acts that are performed simply to save face. His shooting of the elephant who was no longer presenting a threat is a case in point. The narrator had no good reason to shoot the elephant except that the watching crowd of Burmese expected him to. As a result the animal died slowly and painfully, and the Burmese owner lost a valuable piece of livestock.Because of its cumulative corrosive effect, Orwell's speaker refers to imperialism as an "evil thing."

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