By George Orwell (1903-1950)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
......."Shooting an Elephant" is a short story that is also sometimes classified as an essay. It first appeared in 1936 in the autumn issue of New Writing, published twice a year in London from 1936 to 1946.
.......The setting is Burma (present-day Myanmar) in the 1920s, when the country was a province of India. The action takes place in the town of Moulmein in the southern part of the province, called Lower Burma, a rice-growing region on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
(present-day Myanmar) became a province of India on January 1, 1886, when
India was part of the British Empire.
The Narrator: Young
Englishman serving as a police officer in Burma in the 1920s, when Burma
was part of British-controlled India. He strongly opposes the oppressive
British rule of Burma and the rest of India. At the same time, he resents
the ridicule he receives from the natives, who are unaware that he is on
their side politically. The narrator's views represent those of the author,
George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair).
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys . . . I had got to shoot the elephant . . . To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at........The elephant, meanwhile, remains calm, ignoring the crowd. His left side is parallel to the road, the narrator, and the crowd. Having never before killed an elephant, the narrator is unsure of the exact location of the its brain. Nevertheless, he loads the gun, gets down on the ground in order to steady his aim, and fires at his head, in front of the ear. (He should have fired at the ear.) After about five seconds, the elephant falls to its knees. The narrator fires again. The elephant rises. He is wobbly. The narrator fires a third time, and the elephant collapses. The people rush across the road to view it close up. He is still breathing. The narrator fires his remaining two cartridges into its side, where he thinks its heart is. Blood flows from the wound, but still he breathes. Then, with his Winchester, he fires one shot after another into the beast—first into the side, then into the throat. The elephant continues to breathe.
.......Unable to stand there and watch it suffer, the narrator leaves. He finds out later that the beast lasted another half-hour and that the Burmans “had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon."
.......Afterward, the Burmans and the Europeans were divided on what should have been done. The owner, of course, is angry. But as an Indian, he is powerless to take action. Besides, the narrator has the law on his side. An elephant has to be killed if its owner fails to control it. The older Europeans defend the narrator. The younger ones say it is wrong to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, for the it is worth much more than the victim. The narrator says, "And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool."
.......The narrator experiences three conflicts: one with the Brtitish Empire because of its unjust occupation of Burma, one with the Burmese because of their mockery of him as a representative of the British Empire, and one with himself in his struggle with his conscience and self-image. In literary terms, the first two are external conflicts (because they are outside him) and the third is an internal conflict (because it is inside him). All three conflicts complicate his ability to make objective, clear-headed decisions.
Narrator's Point of View and His Shortcomings
.......The narrator tells the story in first-person point of view. He blames British tyranny and Burmese reaction to it for his troubles, as the following paragraph indicates:
I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty........The narrator also asserts that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." But is he simply making excuses for his own shortcomings? After all, he could refuse to shoot the elephant and walk away. True, he would lose face. But he would retain his honor; his conscience would remain clear. However, under pressure to kill the beast, he cannot muster the courage to oppose the will of crowd. So he decides to shoot the elephant (even though he admits that he is a “poor shot with a rifle"). But that decision is not his only mistake. He also errs when he fails to seek advice—from someone in the crowd, from the sub-inspector, or from the owner of the elephant gun—on where to direct his shot. After firing the first shot at its skull in front of an ear, he wounds but does not kill the elephant. He then fires two more cartridges at the same spot. But the elephant, though down, refuses to die. The narrator then makes a bloody mess of things. First, he fires the last two elephant-gun cartridges into the body of the elephant in hopes of hitting the heart. When that strategy fails, he fires several rounds from his Winchester into the elephant's mouth and body. The elephant remains alive, and the narrator can do nothing but walk away. The elephant lies in agony for another half-hour before dying.
.......One may conclude that, yes, the British government is condemnable for its subjugation of the people of Burma. One may also conclude that individual British overseers are reprehensible for allowing government policy to run roughshod over their consciences.
The Evil of Imperialism
.......Imperialism is evil. First, it humiliates the occupied people, reducing them to inferior status in their own country. Second, it goads the occupiers into making immoral or unethical decisions to maintain their superiority over the people. In “Shooting an Elephant," the narrator acts against his own conscience to save face for himself and his fellow imperialists.
Loss of Freedom in a Colonized Land
.......When imperialists colonize a country, they restrict the freedom of the natives. In so doing, the imperialists also unwittingly limit their own freedom in that they tend to avoid courses of action that could provoke the occupied people. In “Shooting an Elephant," the narrator realizes that he should allow the elephant to live, but he shoots the animal anyway to satisfy the crowd of natives who want him to kill it. He then says,
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.Prejudice
the narrator seems to respect the natives as fellow human beings, other
Europeans regard the Burmese and Indians with contempt—an attitude made
clear near the end of the story: "[T]he younger [Europeans] said it was
a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant
was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie."
.......The natives resent the presence of the British, as would any people subjected to foreign rule. They ridicule the British from a distance and laugh at them whenever an opportunity presents itself. In turn, many of the the British despise the natives. And so, there is constant tension between the occupier and the occupied.
on a street with walk-in shops and outdoor stalls.
climax occurs when the narrator decides under pressure that he must shoot
.......Following are examples of symbols in "Shooting an Elephant":
mad elephant: Symbol
of the British Empire. Like the elephant, the empire is powerful. When
the elephant raids the bazaar (marketplace), he symbolizes the British
Empire raiding the economy of Burma. When he kills the coolie, he represents
the British oppressing the natives.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story.
yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere,Anaphora
.......Anaphora is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of a clause or another group of words. Anaphora imparts emphasis and balance, as in the following examples:
Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant.Metaphor
Comparison of Unlike Things Without Using Like, As, Than, or As If
I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. (Comparison of wills to a physical force)Oxymoron
Combination of Contradictory Terms
.......He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps,
[A] story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.Simile
Comparison of Unlike Things Using Like, As, Than, or As If
The friction of the great beast's foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. (Comparison of the elephant's action to that of a man skinning .....a rabbit)Author Information
.......George Orwell (1903-1950) was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair. Orwell, a British citizen, was born in Motihari, India, in 1903, and attended school in England. Between 1922 and 1927, he served the British government in Burma as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police. After becoming disenchanted with British treatment of the native Burmese, he left the police service, traveled in Europe, and in 1934 published his first novel, Burmese Days, which impugned British imperialism. He also wrote several fine short stories, including "Shooting an Elephant," which are based on his experiences in Burma. His most famous works, both of which warn of the dangers of totalitarianism, are his novels Animal Farm and 1984.
you sympathize with the narrator? Explain your answer.