In “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell presents a story in which he reluctantly kills
an elephant. Orwell is a British police officer who is always teased by the Burmese, who see
him as a representative of the British Empire but fail to realize that Orwell also opposes English
occupation of Burma. One day, Orwell is called to investigate an accident in the marketplace
involving a rampant elephant. Orwell borrows a rifle, which could bring down the elephant,
from his friend. He hopes that he would not have to kill the beast, because he thinks that killing
a working elephant is a hideous shame; however, forced by the crowd and fearing ridicule, he
eventually kills it.
Generally, an elephant represents prosperity and loyalty. In the story, however,
the aggressive elephant symbolizes the powerful British Empire, showing the evil side of
imperialism. At the beginning, Orwell clearly demonstrates that “No one had the guts to raise
a riot” (Orwell 313), which shows that the locals have no ability to resist such a horrible reign
of imperialism. As a police officer, Orwell presents his dislike for colonial Britain by saying
that “imperialism was an evil thing” (313). He sees that imperialism is only going to worsen the
relationships between the occupiers and occupied. Thus, when an elephant demolishes the
marketplace, Orwell uses it to symbolize the British Empire pillaging the economy of Burma.
Watching as a rampant elephant attacks the marketplace, fights an animal, and raids some
shops, the Burmese are powerless to do anything although they wish to stop the mad elephant.
Similarly, by implementing strict laws, the British exploits the freedom of the Burmese, which
the locals cannot withstand.
Imperialism oppresses occupied people by lowering their social status within their
own country. In the story, the owner of the dead elephant is angry because the police officer
has killed his working partner. Yet, the owner could do nothing but grumble, as he is only
Indian. From this, it can be seen that the locals do not have the right to complain because
of their humble social status. In addition, imperialism encourages the occupiers to make
immoral decision in order to maintain their superior status. For example, Orwell, by killing
an elephant, acts against his own principles to prevent looking like a fool. He realizes that he
should allow the elephant to live. Even though he holds a weapon, it is not Orwell’s desire to
shoot an elephant. However, due to the crowd’s expectation, he realizes that he must do so.
Furthermore, the death of the coolie by the elephant makes Orwell feel relaxed, because it
provides the right for the author to kill the elephant. Orwell wonders if anyone will sense his
motive for killing the elephant: to save his pride. The author wants to enhance his image in
front of the Burmese. Although he is forced to impose strict laws, he demonstrates his feelings
against them, because he knows he is forfeiting his freedom while oppressing the Burmese.
Moreover, imperialism enables an inner conflict of Orwell, which he struggles to stay at
his own job or against the British. Orwell claims that he is "all for the Burmese and all against
the British. (317)" He is trapped between the "hatred of the empire [he] served" (317) and the
responsibilities if his job. As a police officer, Orwell is responsible for implementing strict British
rule. Therefore, he is ignored and hated by the Burmese people. He is often a target of mockery
by the Burmese. The natives sneer at the British from a distance and tease them whenever
there is an opportunity. Orwell indicates that he is “momentarily worth watching” (316) only
when he is expected to shoot the elephant.
The tensions between the occupier and occupied appear consistently. For one, Orwell
implies that the British are esteemed more highly than the locals...
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