Based on Orwell’s experience with the Indian Imperial Police (1922-1927), “Shooting an Elephant” is set in Moulmein, in Lower Burma. Orwell, the narrator, has already begun to question the presence of the British in the Far East. He says that, theoretically and secretly, he was “all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.” Orwell describes himself as “young and ill-educated,” bitterly hating his job.
Orwell’s job, in this instance, is to respond to a report of the death of a local man who was killed by an elephant in musth. Orwell finds the man “lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to the side.” The corpse grins with “an expression of unendurable agony.” At this point, Orwell feels the collective will of the crowd urging him to shoot the elephant, but Orwell, knowing that the elephant is probably no longer dangerous, has no intention of shooting the elephant. He begins to anthropomorphize the elephant, changing the pronouns from “it” to “he,” referring to the elephant’s “preoccupied grandmotherly air,” and concluding that “it would be murder to shoot the elephant.”
Despite Orwell’s aversion to shooting the elephant, he becomes suddenly aware that he will lose face and be humiliated if he does not shoot it. He therefore shoots the elephant. The death itself is sustained in excruciating detail. After three shots, the elephant still does not die. Orwell fires his two remaining shots into the elephant’s heart. He sends someone to get his small rifle, then pours “shot after shot into his heart and down his throat.” Still, the elephant does not die. Orwell, unable to stand the elephant’s suffering and unable to watch and listen to it, goes away. The elephant, like the Burmese people, has become the unwitting victim of the British imperialist’s need to save face. No one is stronger for the experience.
Orwell candidly depicts his unsympathetic actions both in shooting the elephant and in the aftermath, when he is among his fellow British police officers. He is relieved, he admits, that the coolie died, because it gave him a pretext for shooting the elephant. As far as his fellow officers are concerned, he did the right thing. As far as the natives are concerned, he saved face. Yet Orwell concludes, “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”
Throughout the essay, Orwell weaves his thesis about the effects of imperialism not only on the oppressed but on the oppressors, as well. He says that “every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at,” that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys,” and that the imperialist “becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.” Orwell’s essay, however, is more than one person’s riveting narrative about the beginning of an awareness. “Shooting an Elephant” captures a universal experience of going against one’s own humanity at the cost of a part of that humanity.
"Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell is a narrative essay about Orwell's time as a police officer for the British Raj in colonial Burma. The essay delves into an inner conflict that Orwell experiences in his role of representing the British Empire and upholding the law. At the opening of the essay Orwell explains that he is opposed to the British colonial project in Burma. In explicit terms he says that he's on the side of the Burmese people,who he feels are oppressed by colonial rule. As a police officer he sees the brutalities of the imperial project up close and first hand. He resents the British presence in the country.
Inevitably then, he faces challenges as a police officer representing British imperial power. The people of Burma hate the empire too, and thus they hate Orwell, for he is the face of the empire. They harass him and mock him and seek opportunities to laugh at him. He explains that at the time of the events, he is too young to grasp the dilemma of his situation, or to know how to deal with it. He thus finds himself resenting the Burmese people as well. The one thing that the Burmese have over the British is the ability to mock and ridicule them. Orwell's entire focus as a police officer thus becomes about avoiding the ridicule of the Burmese.
The narrative centers around the event of a day when all of these conflicted emotions manifest themselves and Orwell faces them and understands them. On this day, Orwell learns that an elephant has broken its chain and it is undergoing a bout of "must" (a passing hormonal disorder that causes elephants to become uncontrollably violent). The elephant is rampaging through a bazaar, wreaking havoc. Feeling compelled to do some decent policing, Orwell sets out with a small rifle to see what's happening. He states that he has no intention of killing the elephant.
When he arrives in the shanty town area he finds the mess the elephant has made. It has trampled grass huts and turned over a garbage disposal van and it has killed a man. Orwell sends for an elephant rifle, though he still has no intention of killing the elephant. He states that he merely wants to defend himself. With the rifle, he's led down to the paddy fields where he sees the giant elephant peacefully grazing.
Upon laying eyes on the elephant he instantly feels that it would be wrong to kill it. He has no inclination to destroy something so complex and beautiful. He describes the beauty and great value of the animal. It would go against everything in him to kill it. He says it would be like murder. But when looks back to see the people watching, he realizes that the crowd is massive—at least two thousand people!
He feels their eyes on him, and their great expectations of his role. They want to see the spectacle. But more importantly, he feels, they expect him to uphold the performance of power that he is meant to represent as an officer of the British Empire. At this stage Orwell has the clear revelation that all white men in the colonized world are beholden to the people whom they colonize. If he falters, he will let down the guise of power, but most of all, he will create an opportunity for the people to laugh. Nothing terrifies him more than the prospect of humiliation by the Burmese crowd. Now, the prospect of being trampled by the elephant no longer scares him because it would risk death. The worst part of that prospect would rather be that the crowd would laugh. In this way, he realizes that the entire enterprise of the empire is kept afloat by the personal fear of humiliation of individual officers.
He thus gets down on the ground, takes aim with the powerful elephant gun with cross-hairs in the viewer, and he fires at the elephant's brain. He hits the elephant and the crowd roars. But the elephant doesn't die. A disturbing change comes over it and merely seems to age. He fires again and this time brings it slowly to its knees. But still it doesn't go down. He fires again and it comes back up, dramatically rising on hind legs and lifting its trunk before thundering to the earth. Still however, it remains alive. Orwell goes to it and finds that it's still breathing. He proceeds to unload bullet after bullet into the elephant's heart, but it won't die. The people have swarmed in to steal the meat. Without describing his shame or guilt, he leaves the elephant alive, suffering terribly. He learns later that it took half an hour for the elephant to die. There's some discussion among the other police officers about whether or not he did the right thing. The older ones think he did. The younger ones feel that it's a shame to shoot an elephant for killing a Burmese collie.