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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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Perspectives on the Elephant Killing in "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell


In "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell portrays the elephant killing as a symbol of the moral and political conflicts inherent in colonialism. Orwell, as a colonial officer, feels pressured to shoot the elephant to maintain authority and avoid appearing weak, despite his personal reluctance. The act reflects the complexities and contradictions of imperial rule, highlighting the ethical dilemmas faced by those enforcing it.

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

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

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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What differences exist in Europeans' views of the elephant killing in "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell?

The denouement of "Shooting an Elephant" describes the quibbling over the death of the elephant and the justifications for its shooting. The Europeans disagree about the outcome; some think the killing a wasteful act, while others think it was the proper thing to do.

The owner is furious his elephant has been shot, but has no recourse because he is an Indian. Orwell is relieved the coolie died because the death puts him legally in the right. Among the Europeans, there are different viewpoints:

  • An older man contends Orwell has done the right thing. (Appearances are important.)
  • Younger men feel it is a pity an elephant was shot only because it killed a coolie; an elephant, they reason, is worth far more than an Indian. (Practicality is important.)

While the disputes take place, Orwell feels shame because he knows he shot the elephant because he did not want to appear weak or frightened in front of the natives.

For it is the condition of his rule [the imperialist] that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.

Orwell feels shame that he has shot the elephant because he thought if he did not shoot it, "[T]he crowd would laugh at me." Furthermore, he is disturbed because he realizes being an imperialist is one long struggle not to appear weak or foolish. The idea of empire has become incompatible with Orwell's moral analysis of the ordeal.

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