“Shooting an Elephant” is an early essay by George Orwell. It is unclear whether this essay is autobiographical, or portrays a fictionalized version of a real experience. However, the strong imagery and symbolism of the story make its nature almost irrelevant to the message it tries to convey. The main themes of the story are imperialism, and how it interacts with nations, it subjugates. A closer examination of the text reveals the third theme of hypocrisy or perhaps the effect of imperialism on people who grow up in the dominant culture of an imperialist country. This paper will provide an overview of the story and its themes, as well as how Orwell presents them.
George Orwell spent the majority of his youth in Burma, where he worked as a police officer. His outlook on the British Empire controlling the country was not unlike the one that the main character of the essay presents. The injustice being committed by the United Kingdom was clear to him, as well as the complete inability to sustain their control over the region. For him, colonialism was an inherently fruitless idea, due to a variety of factors he covers in the story. The fact that the main character is never fully identified as Orwell is likely to deliberate, as the views expressed by him, may not be fully representative of the author (Bluemel 17). The story describes how the main character has to resolve a situation where a rampaging elephant caused havoc in a village. By the time he finds the elephant, it is calm and could be returned to its owner. In fact, it would be much more beneficial to all parties involved in the elephant survives. However, a large crowd of people that followed the character as he investigated the situation creates such a powerful sense of anticipation that the main character feels like he is forced to shoot the elephant. Elephant’s death is very painful and prolonged. After it is dead, the villagers take apart his body, leaving almost nothing but bones. This event causes the main character to have a revelation that the elephant in the dying body of imperialism and he is experiencing what any colonial force does in times of crisis for the subjugated people, follow their will (Orwell 40).
The image of the elephant as the British Empire is very powerful. While the realization of the elephant’s narrative nature occurs at the end of the story, its actions can be retroactively seen as related to it being the empire. The main character learns that it broke multiple buildings, killed people during its rampage, and is generally destructive and aggressive. This could represent the early stages of empires as they expand their territory through warfare, without any consideration for the lives of others. When the main character finds the elephant, it is calm and only attacks if provoked. This stage could represent a mature empire that is still dangerous but is not actively aggressive to its neighbors or subjects. The slow and painful death of the elephant is then could be seen as the inevitable decline of empires after they are unable to sustain control over the countries they subjugated. The act of taking the elephant apart is then seen as the liberated nations taking resources back from their previous oppressors. However, this is not framed in a positive way, as the survival of the elephant would mean that its owner would be able to use it in the future. Replacing an elephant is said to be very costly, and overall undesirable. The death itself is described in horrific detail as the elephant trumpets, wheezes, and struggles to breathe throughout it. The main character is seemingly disgusted by it and only wants to finish it as soon as possible, but he is unable to do so. Perhaps Orwell was trying to show that while imperialism is inherently negative, its demise may also be harmful (Homayra and Eshita 173).
The whole story is told from the first-person perspective, as the character describes his thoughts and feelings on the occurring events. While he openly admits that he despises imperialism, his perspective reveals that it had an effect on his way of thinking about the world. From the beginning of the story, he states that the local population despises the British and that it upsets him enough to think poorly of the people, despite understanding their position. It can be seen that the main character does not see himself as being on the same level as the natives in the way he dispassionately views the crushed body of a villager or how he addresses others around him. Moreover, the people who were killed by the elephant belonged to a lower class of citizens, which is seen as favorable by his peers at the end of the story. While the main character may not be openly racist, his thoughts and actions show that he still sees himself as slightly superior to villagers. His realization about the elephant and the will of the locals is also colored with his perspective. He is forced to do something that is inherently negative just by the perceived threat of the crowd of locals. He sees himself as the victim, despite clearly being in power, even by his own admittance (Akter 596).
The portrayal of the villagers also reinforces the idea that the main character is hypocritical in his views. The majority of villagers that are described with any level of detail are simple and almost cartoonish. They are either indifferent to the horrible outcome of the elephant’s rampage or have perceived ulterior motives related to it. Even those who die do not deserve respect or dignity. Moreover, visual descriptions of the natives are cartoonish in nature and have no authenticity to them. Finally, the crowd that followed the main character is described as an inhuman mob that would tear him apart if he did not kill the elephant. It is possible that these elements were added specifically to have the main character be an unreliable narrator, but since it is unknown whether this story is autobiographical or not, it is impossible to make a concrete decision (Akter 597).
This is one of the more popular essays of Orwell due to its distinct use of symbolism and imagery. However, the exploration of its themes reveals unexpected hypocrisy from either the main character or the author. It is impossible to tell due to the fact that Orwell subsequently wrote a number of books that explored political issues with a certain degree of insight that seems lost on the main character of the story. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating essay that deserves further examination.
Akter, Shammi. “Shooting an Elephant: A Study of Hypocrisy; Not Heroics.” Journal of English Language and Literature, vol. 8, no. 1, Aug. 2017, pp. 595–97.
Bluemel, K. George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics: Intermodernism in Literary London. Springer, 2016.
Homayra, Binte Bahar, and Awal Eshita. Paranoia of Colonization: An Existential Choice, “Shooting an Elephant.” Vol. 7, no. 1, 2016, pp. 173–180.
Orwell, George. Shooting an Elephant. Penguin UK, 2009.