close-up illustration of an elephant's face

Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.

This may be the most successful opening line in any of Orwell’s works. It grabs the attention immediately, compelling the reader to wonder why the author was so hated. The dramatic opening is balanced by the self-deprecating humor of the final clause, which emphasizes that the situation about to be discussed is unusual in the author’s life, as well as in more general terms. Although the style is distinctive, it is also direct and simple. Orwell was a great advocate of the plain style in English prose, and this laconic opening is typical of the essay’s unadorned, forceful, declarative writing.

He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony. (Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have seen looked devilish.) The friction of the great beast's foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit.

Orwell is describing the corpse of the man killed by the elephant. The physical details are grotesque and suggestive of the suffering the man endured before he died (the word “crucified” in particular suggests martyrdom and the torments of Christ). The comment in parentheses, generalizing from this specific circumstance with a rather dismissive “by the way” is typical of Orwell. So, too, is the vivid and disturbing simile at the end of the passage, which emphasizes the power of the elephant and the helplessness of the man.

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. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.

Orwell is a didactic writer and is often at his best drawing lessons from the scenes he describes. He emphasizes the falseness of the sahib’s posture with the words “dummy” and “mask” and uses the third sentence to reiterate the irony he mentions in the first. The man who appears powerful is less free than those over whom he ostensibly rules: the colonial master must do the bidding of the natives. The final aphoristic sentence reveals the fate of the sahib, a fate Orwell feels he only narrowly avoided: the natural man alters to fit his unnatural role, until only what is false remains.

But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.)

The passage begins with a sentence of nine words, in which the first eight are words of one syllable. As is often the case, Orwell seems to have pared down his writing to the last degree of simplicity. At the same time, the unexpected adjective “grandmotherly” in the second sentence gives a peculiarly vivid picture of the elephant’s expression and demeanor, as well as emphasizing how harmless it is. The final statement in parentheses is a throwaway line, and is explored no further, but it might be the subject of an essay in itself. A piece titled “Shooting a Dog” or “Shooting a Cow” would scarcely carry the same impact.

He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time — it might have been five seconds, I dare say — he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old.

Orwell gains at least some of his effect here from repetition. The idea that the elephant looked very old after he had been shot is repeated three times in five short sentences. At the same time, Orwell is careful to record what he believes to have been the objective reality alongside his feelings and impressions. What seemed a long time to him was probably about five seconds. The passage begins with an ascending tricolon (“stricken, shrunken, immensely old”) and ends with a similar device, with three short sentences stressing the elephant’s slobbering senility, as though all the years it will not now live have been telescoped into a few seconds.

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