Orwell’s Shooting An Elephant – A Review

SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS

I’d like to kick off this new essay review series on a strong note. So, without further ado, let’s start with the legend and his legendary piece: George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.”

TO SET THE STAGE

Political location map of Burma, in context of entire continent.
Location of Burma (Myanmar)

Orwell is a sub-divisional police officer in Moulmein (present-day Mawlamyine), a city of Burma. The specifics of the job are hard to come by, but what you need to know is this: to the Burmans, he is the personification of Europe (which is a bad thing), and very much a policing force or a colonist. The Burmans make their anti-European feelings known in an “aimless, petty kind of  way.” They insult and spit on him, doing most everything they can to make his life a bit harder.

Despite Orwell’s job, he believes imperialism is evil, and he secretly wants the Burmans to be freed from their British oppressors. But, at the same time, he wants to “drive a bayonet” into the guts of the Burmans that make his job so difficult. He claims such feelings are byproducts of imperialism. His being torn between hoping for their freedom or jabbing at them in their guts will later play a crucial role in this essay.

SEARCHING FOR THE ELEPHANT

One day, Orwell was called to deal with an elephant ravaging the bazaar. He brings a .44 Winchester rifle, which he claims is much too small to kill an elephant but is perhaps noisy enough to give it a good scare.

The elephant isn’t wild; it was tame but broke its chains and escaped from its owner. The owner chased it but lost his way and traveled many hours in the wrong direction. It had gone “must,” which, Orwell claims, only happens when the elephants are chained.

The Burmans are helpless against it, and it’s already killed a cow, destroyed a hut, and eaten a fruit vendors stock. Orwell is called by a constable into a poor quarter where it was last seen, but upon asking around for its location, no one gives answers of any value. Here, Orwell states:

“That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.”

He begins to wonder if the elephant is a lie, and then he hears screaming. He runs to it and finds a dead man (a “coolie,” or, unskilled laborer). His description of the body is brilliant. In classic Orwellian style, he masterfully pens this scene:

“The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back, and ground him into the earth. This was the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long. 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.”

Now that Orwell knows this elephant is real and means business, he orders his pony off and asks an orderly to retrieve an elephant rifle. The orderly does, and Orwell goes to the paddy field where he hears the elephant has gone, with an audience now of many interested Burmans shouting out for him to shoot it. Orwell never had such intentions; he requested the elephant rifle merely for protection.

He sees it in the paddy eating grass. It doesn’t seem to care about the gigantic crowd of two thousand people that have surrounded it. Orwell decides it would be difficult to try and kill it; moreover, it would be dangerous and would feel murderous and unfair. After all, the elephant seems harmless now, more concerned with a nice meal than causing any damage.

But he feels two thousand eyes watching him, waiting for him to shoot it. At this moment he realizes that he, the white man holding the rifle before two thousand unarmed Burmans, is the puppet, doing what they expect of him. Orwell realizes he simply has to shoot the elephant; he committed himself to the act when he sent for the rifle. After marching all that way, to turn around would result in him being laughed at. Orwell claims:

“…Every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

Still, Orwell feels killing the elephant would be murder. Moreover, its owner should not be forgotten–surely a living elephant is worth more to him than a dead one. He decides to talk to a few Burmans about what he should do, garnering that he could test the elephant’s behavior by walking close to it–if it charged, he could shoot; if it did not, then all was safe, but the ground is muddy and his aim poor. If it charges, he will surely die.

But he isn’t thinking of his own life; he’s thinking of the two thousand faces watching him. He decides his death, too, will result in laughter, so he lay down on the road to get a better aim and shoots it once in the head. This stuns it, and he pulls the trigger once more, and then again. It falls to the ground but is not dead. It’s only in agony.

The crowd runs towards it, and Orwell, feeling horrible, fires three times where he believes it;s heart is. This does little but increases its agony. Out of bullets with his elephant gun, he fires off round after round with his weaker .44–shooting down the throat, at the heart, trying to kill it. Nothing works. The elephant suffers.

AFTERMATH

Orwell is unable to watch it suffer, so he leaves. He later hears it took half an hour for the elephant to die and that the Burmans ripped it into a pile of bones by the afternoon. Opinions on his actions are divided: the owner is mad; Young Europeans consider it a shame to kill the elephant because it killed a coolie, feeling the elephant was worth much more; old Europeans feel that he made the right move.

Orwell is pleased that the coolie died; it justified his murdering the elephant, he felt. He wonders if they knew he killed it simply to avoid looking foolish.


ANALYSIS

Orwell states his encounter with the elephant enlightened him as to the nature of colonialism. His encounter with the elephant helped him make sense of the confusing feelings he had, explained in “Setting the Stage.”

His duty contradicts his emotion: that is, though he is tasked with policing the Burmans, he wishes for them to break free from the chains of their oppressors, as it were, much like the elephant broke free from its master.

And, though he wishes the Burmans to be free, he also wishes to bayonet them in the gut for making his life so difficult much like he wishes to let the elephant live but also to kill it so he can go home and be done with the pressing situation.

Though the Burmans and the elephant bother him (be it by threatening his life or merely spitting at him) these understandings are understood as reasonable reactions to their oppression.

Remember Orwell’s feeling a puppet while the Burmans anticipated that he shoot the elephant? This parallels the master’s helplessness when his elephant went “must” and broke its restraints. The master became powerless, at the will of its prisoner.

After all, the elephant, like the Burmans, only acted out because of their oppression. There may have been no reason to kill the elephant. Keep in mind, Orwell never “tested its behavior” like he originally planned. He resorted to a barbarism that colonists such as himself would likely deceive themselves to think they are above.

In murdering the elephant he evaluated it emotionally and pragmatically: emotionally, he felt it was simply living, not caring much for its surroundings or meaning any harm. Better alive than dead. Pragmatically, it was worth much more alive than dead, as well. So, why kill it? Orwell states merely to ensure he was not laughed at–perhaps this would take away from his authority (perhaps mere jeers and spitting would turn physical). Clearer now is the symbol of the elephant as the inhabitants of Burma.

When he decides to kill the elephant, he does so with no precautions of knowledge of killing it in a humane or quick manner. To emphasize the barbarism, Orwell shoots endlessly at the elephant, doing little but increasing its agony. He does not know where the brain is or where the heart is. He merely shoots and runs away when he can’t stand watching it–when he can’t stand seeing the possibly passive animal (Burma) lay in agony on the earth and die a slow and painful death (becoming colonized).

FINAL NOTE

Orwell was a brilliant author whose who penned deeply moving and important themes into accessible and engaging tales or true stories. “Shooting an Elephant” is a prime example of his insight and literary prowess. I hope that you will read his essay and discuss any themes you’ve unearthed. There is much to analyze here, and it proves timely still.

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