Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell is a personal essay of the author about his experience in shooting an elephant that has gone amok while he was stationed at Burma as an Imperial sub-divisional police officer. In his essay, Orwell primarily wanted to show three things—the evils of imperialism, the concept of conscience vs. the sense of duty, and the importance of saving face and looking dignified.
Evils of Imperialism
The opening paragraph describes the situation in Burma, particularly the abuse he was taking from the Burmese people. Their actions are just the direct effect of imperialism, suggesting that it is really bad. Unfortunately, this justified hatred towards imperialism trickles down to the people that are just “puppets” of the empire, like Orwell himself and other Europeans. Orwell even reckons that if a European woman happened to be alone out on the streets, she would not be able to go home with a clean dress. Even a police officer like Orwell also suffered the wrath of the locals. During a soccer game for instance, Orwell was intentionally tripped, but the referee “saw nothing” (Orwell). Even the monks, despite their non-violent nature, also joined in these small acts of defiance towards imperialism: “The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all… none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” (Orwell). All of these are small acts of the Burmese in protest of imperialism in their land. Orwell used his observations on the actions to show how imperialism managed to make a peaceful country a hostile one.
Conscience vs. Sense of Duty
Orwell faced the dilemma of choosing between his conscience and his duty as an officer. On one hand, he knew very well that imperialism and the things associated with it are bad. On the other, he was duty bound to remain in service, and for that, he felt bad. “All this was perplexing and upsetting. For that time, I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing” (Orwell). Another thing that makes him feel bad is he is seeing all the bad effects of Imperialism firsthand, but there is nothing he can do about it, even if he hated his job. He felt “an intolerable sense of guilt” doing his job and seeing the oppression at the same time (Orwell).
One less glamorous thing notable about the essay is the concept of saving face. Orwell has emphasized constantly that looking like a fool in front of the locals was not an option. It is the main reason why he killed the elephant in the first place, despite having strong feelings against it. He resolves that “To come all that way… and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing…the crowd would laugh at me” (Orwell). In a country that was occupied by an already failing empire, saving face is more important than saving the elephant. At the end of the text, Orwell admits that he has killed the elephant for the sole purpose of not looking like a fool.
Shooting an Elephant is a written personal experience of Orwell which highlights his encounter with an elephant. Through his narration, Orwell was able to explicitly show his views regarding the evils of imperialism specifically in Burma, the contradictions of conscience and duty, and the utter importance of looking dignified in front of the local people.
Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” Shooting an Elephant and other Essays. London:
Secker and Warburg, 1950. n. pag. 8 Apr. 2009