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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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What is the thesis of "Shooting an Elephant"?

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The thesis of "Shooting an Elephant" is that harmful systems like imperialism cause unnecessary suffering for all parties involved, including the colonized, colonizers, and animals. This system, built on violence and oppression, corrupts everyone, forcing them to act against their moral compass. The protagonist, representing the British Empire, feels compelled to shoot the elephant to uphold imperial power, despite recognizing the act's senselessness and cruelty. This illustrates the thesis that both colonizers and colonized are negatively transformed by imperialism.

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Orwell's thesis is that bad systems, such as imperialism, cause unnecessary suffering to everyone involved: the colonized, the colonizers, and even the animals.

As "Shooting an Elephant " illustrates, a social and economic system built on violence and oppression has a corrosive and corrupting influence on everyone. As...

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he deals with the Burmese, the narrator realizes that he is no longer his own person. He is a representative of the British Empire. He has to leave his common sense and human faculties of compassion behind because he feels forced to play out a role. His moves, like those of the oppressed Burmese people, have been locked in place by the system in which they are all caught. Orwell has to shoot the elephant, senseless and cruel as that act is, because he has to uphold the power of the British Empire.

Orwell's point is to critique systemic evil. The incident with the elephant merely crystallizes what he already knew:

For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better.

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If you consider the thesis of Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" to be directly stated, you probably want to point to a sentence in paragraph seven:

...when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

In the essay, Orwell describes how he lost the ability to act morally.  The elephant appeared to have already passed out of "must," and did not, at that moment, need to be destroyed.  Faced with the mob, however, Orwell cannot afford to buck the mentality of that mob.  The mob is waiting for some excitement and entertainment, and he cannot afford to disappoint its members.  As Orwell describes the scene, the fact that he is surrounded by locals is emphasized, and this highlights the overwhelming numbers of people that must be controlled by a relatively few British.  Orwell cannot afford to show any sign of weakness.  Thus, he feels, he is forced to kill the elephant.  He loses his freedom to act morally.

If the thesis is implied, rather than directly stated, then it deals with a similar but more detailed thought.  Based on the description of the locals, we see that they, too, have been changed by imperialism.  The Buddhist monks, for instance, seemed to have nothing "to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans," according to Orwell.  If the thesis is implied, therefore, it deals with the idea that both the colonizers and the colonized are negatively changed by imperialism.  Imperialism comes at a cost to both imperialists and their victims.     

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What are the main conflicts in "Shooting an Elephant"?

A main conflict in "Shooting an Elephant" is between the narrator's hatred of the colonial and imperialist system he is part of and his concomitant hatred of the Burmese people. As he so memorably puts it, he "bitterly" despises being part of the British police state in Burma, but

I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.

He recognizes that imperialism has created the hatred the Burmese feel towards their British overlords, but he also resents that hatred, which manifests itself in attempts to jeer at, harm, passively resist, and discredit the English.

The conflict that arises from this situation is between common sense and the British need to keep up an appearance of invulnerability. This is best expressed when the narrator feels compelled to save face by shooting and killing a harmless elephant. He knows it is cruel—the elephant will die slowly—and wasteful—the elephant poses no threat at this point—but he does it because the Burmese crowd expects him to. Orwell shows through this incident that the imperial system is irrational, cruel, and debilitating.

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What are the main conflicts in "Shooting an Elephant"?

In "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell highlights a number of conflicts. Firstly, there is a conflict between Orwell and the native Burmese people. This is made clear in the first paragraph when he says that he was "hated by large numbers of people." These people, the Burmese, would jeer, shout insults, and in one case, tripped Orwell up while he was playing football.

Secondly, there is a conflict between Orwell and the British Empire. He believes, for example, that imperialism is an "evil thing," having seen first-hand the treatment of Burmese prisoners, which he describes in the second paragraph.

Finally, Orwell experiences an internal conflict which is shown through his dilemma over whether or not to shoot the elephant. On the one hand, Orwell does not want to kill the animal because he knows that it will eventually calm down and that he does not have the correct equipment. But, on the other hand, if he does not shoot the elephant, he will be humiliated and the Burmese will never take him seriously again.

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What are the main conflicts in "Shooting an Elephant"?

The main conflicts in "Shooting An Elephant" revolve around a colonial policeman in British governed Burma.  He has a great deal of difficulty with the people he must protect.  He believes that they harbor a resentment and a distinct prejudice towards him.

This resentment is built around the fact that the British treat their colonized subjects as inferior, a fact that disturbs the policeman greatly.

One of the conflicts arises from prejudice and tolerance

"The colonial policeman has a duty towards the job, towards the empire, and this in turn requires treating the locals as inferiors."

Which leads to understanding the conflict of culture clash between the British rulers and the native people.

"The first is the ethical difference setting the narrator, as a representative of the West, apart from the native Burmese, who belong to the local village-culture and live in a pre-industrial world from which the West itself has long since emerged."

The narrator has a conflict of conscience.

"The narrator's moral conscience appears in the moment when the corpse of the Burmese crushed by the elephant comes to his attention; the narrator says that the man lay sprawled in a crucified posture,"

The last conflict comes from the action of order and disorder.  The elephant escaping is a sign of disorder, the policeman is a representative of order. 

"which is why Orwell’s narrator cannot avoid the unpleasant duty of shooting the elephant."

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What is the theme of "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell?

There are multiple themes in "Shooting an Elephant," but the one that is perhaps the most central to Orwell's purpose is the fundamental moral corruption of imperialism. This is portrayed in the act of shooting the elephant. The Burmese people despise the narrator, because he represents the violence and arrogance of the metropole. He does not especially like them either, though he says he is "theoretically" and "secretly" all for them. When the elephant storms through bazaar, accidently killing a man, the natives demand that the narrator, a colonial policeman, shoot the elephant. This places him in a situation that highlights the corrupting influence of imperialism. He does not want to kill the animal, which has by that point calmed down, but he recognizes that to placate the crowd, he must do so. In other words, he must behave in the violent fashion that the crowd associates with imperialism:

I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule 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.

This paradox is the point Orwell is trying to drive home, and it points to the basic corruption of European imperial rule. 

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What are some major ideas in "Shooting an Elephant"?

This story is about so many things:  power, colonialism, the individual vs. society, cultural differences, and inhumane treatment of animals to name a few.  This was written during a time that the power of Britain was falling apart all over the world and many of the colonies they had held for so long were regaining their independence.  There are issues there, as well.  The Burmese simply don't like or respect the "invaders".

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What are some major ideas in "Shooting an Elephant"?

In his essay "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell examines the effects of imperialism on the imperialist. A representative of the British government, the narrator has authority in Burma that he must uphold, and he feels uncomfortable in doing this. Indeed, he feels inadequate. When he is called upon to shoot the elephant, he must fire the gun again and again, while he knows he is doing something cruel.  He must save face, however. Although he only brought the rifle to defend himself, the pressure of the crowd--what they expect from him as part of the British Raj--compels him to shoot. The last sentence carries the irony of the experience:  "I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool." In condemning himself, he shows the "trickle-down" effect of the immorality of imperialism.

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What topics can be developed in the essay "Shooting an Elephant"?

"Shooting an Elephant" is a thought-provoking essay which has a number of interesting topics that can be further developed.

One idea is to look at the nature and function of British imperialism. Consider, for example, how Britain came to build its empire and how it took control of Burma, specifically. As Orwell's essay argues, the British often mistreated the Burmese, as we learn in the second paragraph, when he describes the "wretched prisoners" who have been "Bogged with bamboo." Using this as a starting point, research this darker side of imperialism and find out how the British used violence to subjugate and control the native population.

Another topic idea is to focus on Orwell himself. As we learn in the text, Orwell very much hated his job. He had already decided, for instance, that "imperialism was an evil thing," but believing himself to be "young and ill-educated," he stayed in Burma for five years (from 1922-1927). Write a biographical essay in which you find out what prompted Orwell to finally give up his job and what he did next. Did his experience in Burma surface in any of his later writings?

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