Shooting an Elephant Themes

The main themes of “Shooting an Elephant” include conscience, culture clash, and order and disorder.

  • Conscience: In the essay, colonial law contrasts with the conscience of the narrator both in his killing of the elephant and his treatment of the Burmese.
  • Culture clash: The narrator’s divided sympathies and the differing backgrounds of the Burmese and the British demonstrate that culture clash is both external and internal. 
  • Order and disorder: The essay suggests that a paradoxical use of disorder is necessary in order to quell rebellion and maintain order.

Themes

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Last Updated on November 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890

Conscience

The narrator’s mental division points to conscience as one of the underlying themes of ‘‘Shooting an Elephant.’’ The narrator must do his duty as a colonial policeman. He despises the native Burmese for loathing and tormenting him as their foreign oppressor; yet he also perfectly well understands their loathing and tormenting; he even takes their side privately. His official position, rather than his moral disposition, compels the narrator to act in the way that he does, so as to uphold his office precisely by keeping the native Burmese in their subordinate and dependent place. As a colonial official, the narrator must not let himself become a spectacle before the native crowds. Not shooting the elephant would make him seem like a coward, so he shoots the elephant. 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, invoking all of the poignant and rich symbolism that the term ‘‘crucified’’ offers. The elephant, too, especially in its pain-wracked death, evokes in the narrator feelings of terrible pity, not soothed by his knowledge that he acted within the law. Law, indeed, opposes conscience in ‘‘Shooting an Elephant.’’ The brute fact of Empire, thoroughly institutionalized, is irreconcilable with the individual’s moral analysis of the situation.

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Culture Clash

The obvious culture clash in ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ is that between the colonizers and the colonized, the British and the Burmese. The British represent the industrial West with its notions of civic administration and its technological excellence; the Burmese represent a powerless pre-industrial society set upon by an industrial superpower looking beyond its own borders for a field of action. The Burmese despise the British; the British condescend to the Burmese. Less obvious, but far more important, are two other culture clashes. 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 does not want to kill the elephant; the crowd does. The narrator personifies the animal and feels the pathos of its painful death at his own hands; the crowd strip it bare of its flesh within a few hours of its having fallen to the ground. The dead Burmese seems far more important to the narrator than to the crowd who is following him around. The mob’s thirst for violence is very different from the narrator’s hope of avoiding it. The second less obvious culture clash takes place within the narrator himself. Here the personal culture of an ethical Western individual is at odds with his institutional culture; the narrator’s personal values—his sense that the dead Burmese has been, in some manner, crucified, and that the elephant is a victim pure and simple— clash with his duty as a colonial policeman.

Order and Disorder

Order prevails when the mahout (elephant handler) ties up the elephant and keeps him under control; disorder prevails when the elephant slips his keeper and ravages the bazaar. A policeman, too, is a keeper of order, which is why Orwell’s narrator cannot avoid the unpleasant duty of shooting the elephant. Not to do so would be to condone disorder and provoke it even further, by appearing to be unwilling to carry out official violence against the disruption of daily affairs. Disorder is a type of violence within the daily round, dissolving the habitual peace. Disorder-as-violence can only be halted by a supplementary administration of violence, and even the narrator admits that this supplement is morally dubious, no matter how practical or necessary it might be. Disorder-as-violence appears on many occasions directed against the British, as when random Burmese spit betel juice on passing European women, as when Buddhist priests laugh spitefully at the narrator, as when the umpire on the playing field looks conveniently the other way while a Burmese player fouls the very same narrator. But this disorder also quells a possibly greater disorder, that of general rebellion against the British. Order, it appears, calls for a strange and paradoxical use of disorder to satisfy rebellious urges which would otherwise grow strong and run amok like a rogue elephant.

Prejudice and Tolerance

The narrator explains how one falls into prejudice, a state of mind in which expediency suppresses conscience: One finds oneself in a role, like that of a colonial policeman; one’s personal judgments, which run to sympathy with the native people, necessarily must give way to duty towards the job, towards the empire, and this in turn requires treating the locals as inferiors. Organizationally and technically, the locals are inferior, in the purely Darwinian sense that their society cannot prevail over the society that has colonized them; thus, out of habit, they concede the role of overlord to the colonists, and this too conspires to make the agent of empire act out of prejudgment in a type of imposed role. All acts, by everyone, in this context, are prejudged and stereotyped. On the other hand, both sides tolerate each other, in the neutral rather than in the morally exemplary sense, conceding to each other their complementary roles and biding their time.

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