Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.©
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.
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.
interest in India began when the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama arrived
there in 1498. In 1600, England chartered the East India Company to exploit
and within decades established trading posts in key Indian cities. Over
the next two-and-a-half centuries, Britain expanded its economic interest
in India. In 1858, Britain transferred control of India from the East India
Company to the British government. The British overlords directly imposed
their will and their ways on three-fifths of the populace in what became
known as "British India" and indirectly on two-fifths of the populace in
autonomous native states.
after fighting three wars with the Burmese—the first from 1824 to1826,
the second in 1852, and the third in 1885—the British gained control of
Burma and incorporated it into India.
dominated the economic, political, and social life of the their conquered
lands. The British got the best jobs, held the top government posts, and
exploited the natural resources. They also erected social barriers between
themselves and the natives. All the while, native resentment of the English
was building. In the twentieth century, this resentment continued to increase.
George Orwell and other writers, including E.M.
Forster, were among dissident voices that called attention to the evils
of British imperialism.
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).
officer who calls the narrator for help after an elephant gets loose in
Black Dravidian Coolie:
Indian laborer from the town of Coringa, India, who is killed by the elephant.
A Dravidian is a lower-caste Indian who speaks his own language, Dravidian.
Friend of the Narrator:
Man who provides the narrator an elephant gun.
Police Orderly: Person
who fetches an elephant gun for the narrator.
Mahout: Owner of
the elephant. He becomes very angry after learning that the narrator has
killed his elephant. A mahout is a skilled elephant trainer and handler.
Crowd of Townspeople
British Who React to
a British police officer in the hillside town of Moulmein in Lower Burma,
the narrator frequently endures jeers from the natives. They do not realize
that he, too, opposes English occupation of Burma. In his position, he
sees the misery that imperialism produces.
wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the
grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the
men who had been flogged with bamboos—all these oppressed me with an intolerable
sense of guilt," he says.
here he is walking a line between anti-imperialism and "the evil spirited
little beasts who tried to make my job impossible."
morning at the beginning of the rainy season (between June and October),
an incident occurs that enlightens him about the motives of imperialism.
An elephant is loose in a bazaar in a poor section of town, and a Burmese
sub-inspector phones him to come and remedy the situation. The elephant,
normally tame, is in must, a state of frenzy brought on by sexual heat.
After it had broken its chain and run away, its mahout pursued it in the
wrong direction and was now many miles away. So far the elephant had demolished
a hut, overturned a garbage van, killed a cow, and eaten produce in the
fruit stalls of the bazaar. Because the Burmese have no weapons of their
own, the elephant is free to run wild.
narrator gets his .44 Winchester and travels to the site on a pony. The
Winchester is not powerful enough to kill an elephant, but the noise it
makes can frighten an animal. After the sub-inspector and several Indian
constables greet the narrator, he investigates a hubbub at a nearby hut.
Around the corner of the hut, he discovers the body of an Indian, a black
Dravidian coolie, in mud. Onlookers report that the elephant captured him
with its trunk and then ground him down with its foot. His body is a ghastly
sight—skin torn from his back, head wrenched askew, teeth clenched in agony.
friend of the narrator owns an elephant gun, and the narrator sends a police
orderly to fetch it. After he returns with the rifle and five cartridges,
the narrator heads down a hill toward paddy fields where the elephant was
last seen. Throngs of people follow him to witness the shooting of an elephant
and to reap the harvest of meat afterward. However, the narrator hopes
it will not be necessary to shoot the beast.
the bottom of the hill is a road, then the paddy fields. The elephant is
on the other side of the road feeding on grass. He seems peaceful, as if
his must frenzy has subsided and he has returned to normalcy. To kill the
elephant would be a terrible shame. After all, he is a working elephant,
just as valuable as an expensive machine. If he has indeed become docile
again, his mahout will have no trouble controlling him. The narrator decides
to observe the elephant for a while. If it continues to behave, he will
go home. But when he turns around and looks at the spectators, now numbering
about two thousand, he realizes that they expect him to shoot the elephant
and that he is a puppet who must do their bidding.
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.
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."
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."
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.
Point of View and His Shortcomings
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
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
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
The Evil of 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
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 British placed their own men in positions of authority in the colonial
government in India, which then incorporated Burma, and natives in inferior
positions. Moreover, the British generally did not socialize with the natives.
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.
Coringhee: From or
having to do with the town of Coringa, India. It is in the state of Andhra
Pradesh in the southeastern part of the country.
Indian who speaks his own language, Dravidian.
of controlling weak or underdeveloped countries for economic, political,
and military purposes.
in saecula saeculorum:
Latin for in this age and for all ages; forever; for eternity;
the end of the world.
mahout: Skilled elephant
trainer and handler.
Raj, British: British
government rule in India, of which Burma was a part; the period when the
British government ruled India.
sahib: Master, sir.
Indians and Burmans used the word when addressing an Englishman.
climax occurs when the narrator decides under pressure that he must shoot
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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.
dead coolie: Symbol
of the downtrodden Burmese. Note that Orwell says his arms are outstretched
like those of the crucified Christ.
Symbol of British imposition of their culture on their colonies. Modern
soccer was developed in England in the the 19th Century.
mud: Symbol of the
squalor in which the Burmese must live under British rule. It is also a
symbol of the political mire that the British created for themselves when
they colonized India and Burma.
are examples of figures of speech in the story.
Repetition of a Consonant
faces of young men that met
faces of the long-term convicts
I marched down the hill,
a fool. . . .
An enormous senility
to have settled upon him.
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:
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.
I looked at the sea of yellow
faces above the garish clothes—faces all
happy and excited over this bit of fun, all
certain that the elephant was going to be shot. .
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)
I was only an absurd puppet
pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. (Comparison
of the narrator to a puppet)
Combination of Contradictory
grinning corpse Onomatopoeia
was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling
statement that may actually be true
[A] story always
sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene
of events the vaguer it becomes.
I perceived in this moment
that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.
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)
[T]he elephant looked no
more dangerous than a cow. (Comparison of the elephant to a cow)
[H]e seemed to tower upward
like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. (Comparison
of the elephant to a rock)
The thick blood welled out
of him like red velvet. . . . (Comparison of blood to velvet)
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
Questions and Essay Topics
you sympathize with the narrator? Explain your answer.
an essay, compare and contrast the plight of native-born Burmans and Indians
of the early twentieth century with the plight of American blacks in the
same time period.
a short psychological profile of the narrator.
an essay, discuss Orwell's use of irony in "Shooting an Elephant."
and under what circumstances did India and Burma gain their freedom from