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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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Shooting an Elephant Themes

The main themes in “Shooting an Elephant” include colonial guilt and tyranny, moral cowardice, and crowds and power.

  • Colonial guilt and tyranny: Orwell felt guilty about his role as a colonial police officer, imposing the will of the British Empire on the Burmese people.
  • Moral cowardice: Afraid of looking foolish, Orwell went through with shooting the elephant even though he felt that it was wrong.
  • Crowds and power: In preparing to shoot the elephant, Orwell recognized that he was powerless against the crowd who had gathered to watch him.

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Colonial Guilt and Tyranny

Orwell is known as a democratic socialist who hated imperialism, and by the time he came to write “Shooting an Elephant,” he had reached this mature perspective. The young man he describes in this incident a decade ago, however, was a less systematic thinker, uncomfortable and confused in his role as a low-level official doing “the dirty work of empire.” He also believes that his own attitude was approximately typical of Anglo-Indian officials, since such feelings are “normal by-products of imperialism.”

Orwell felt guilty because he was an agent of tyranny, imposing the will of a cruel and corrupt foreign power on the Burmese people. At the same time, he resented these people because they would not hide their hatred. This resentment produced more guilt, as did the fact that, theoretically at least, he was in sympathy with the Burmese and had to hide this sympathy. Orwell shows that the effect of hiding his sympathy was to increase his secret anger, against the empire, the Burmese, and himself, while at the same time he was forced to be constantly on his guard against letting the mask slip and revealing his true feelings, all of which were in some way shameful.

Moral Cowardice

In the first paragraph of “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell remarks that none of the Burmese people in Moulmein “had the guts to raise a riot.” They showed their hatred of him in various petty and cowardly ways and only had a little temporary respect for him when he was killing a harmless elephant. Orwell clearly depicts his shooting of the elephant as an act of moral cowardice. He did not want to kill the elephant, and he only did so because he felt the will of the crowd bullying him into this course of action against his better judgment.

The alternative course, walking up to the elephant to test his behavior, would have taken more physical courage than shooting him from a distance. Nonetheless, when Orwell rejects this course of action, it is again a matter of moral rather than physical cowardice. He does not mind dying, but he cannot bear to lose his temporary fragile authority over the crowd by dying in an absurd manner, at which some of them might laugh. His greatest fear is that of looking a fool, and he is prepared to sacrifice any principles or compassion he has in order to avoid this fate.

Crowds and Power

Orwell is in Burma as a representative of the British Raj, the oppressive colonial power. On the surface, the story told in the essay is about the exercise of that power, as the imperial officer kills a large, powerful, valuable animal. The fact that the elephant is placid and harmless, no longer posing any threat to anybody, only underlines the tyranny of the act. However, Orwell repeatedly makes it clear that he shot the elephant against his will. This fact makes it clear that the power lay not with the white man wielding the gun, but with the crowd behind him.

From the very beginning of the essay, Orwell emphasizes the fact that he was powerless against the sheer number of people who hated him. When he was playing football and another player tripped him up, the referee refused to notice, and there was nothing Orwell could do. The people in the town nominally under his control hoot and jeer at him continually, and he is powerless to prevent them from doing so. Every one of the townspeople has more freedom than he has, and it is when he is most ostentatiously displaying his power, killing a creature noted for its size and strength, that he is least free to choose his own course.

The Theater of Empire

As the crowd watches him take aim at the elephant, Orwell describes himself as a performer in front of an audience. The people, he says, are staring at him “as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick.” Despite their personal dislike, and their readiness to laugh if Orwell is humiliated, they find him “momentarily worth watching” because he wields a “magic rifle.” He appears to be “the leading actor of the piece” but is really the “puppet” of the crowd. When he loads the rifle, he hears a sigh from the crowd “as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last.”

These similes and metaphors of performance show that Orwell is as helpless to determine his own fate as a character in a play, for which all the lines have already been written. He is a sahib, one of the ruling class, and “a sahib has got to act like a sahib.” When he considers the alternative to shooting the elephant immediately, walking up to him to test his behavior, he is not frightened at the thought that the elephant might kill him. His concern is that he will fail in a serious dramatic role: if the people in the audience see him looking foolish in his attempts to run away from the elephant, some of them may laugh.

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