George Orwell (1903-1950)
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
Shooting an Elephant
By George Orwell
In Moulmein, in Lower Burma,
I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that
I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional
police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European
feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a
European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit
betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target
and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped
me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the
other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than
once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere,
the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on
my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were
several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything
to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
All this was perplexing and
upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism
was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it
the better. Theoretically — and secretly, of course — I was all for the
Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I
was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a
job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The 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. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and
ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence
that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that
the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal
better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew
was that 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.
One day something happened
which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself,
but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature
of imperialism — the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early
one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the
town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the
bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what
I could do, but I wanted to see what was
happening and I got on to a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old
.44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the
noise might be useful in terrorem. Various Burmans stopped me on the way
and told me about the elephant's doings. It was not, of course, a wild
elephant, but a tame one which had gone ‘must’. It had been chained up,
as tame elephants always are when their attack of ‘must’ is due, but on
the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the
only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out
in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours’
journey away, and in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in
the town. The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless
against it. It had already destroyed somebody's bamboo hut, killed a cow
and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the
municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels,
had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.
The Burmese sub-inspector
and some Indian constables were waiting for me in the quarter where the
elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid
bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf, winding all over a steep hillside.
I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of the
rains. We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone
and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. 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. 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. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack
of lies, when we heard yells a little distance away. There was a loud,
scandalized cry of ‘Go away, child! Go away this instant!’ and an old woman
with a switch in her hand came round the corner of a hut, violently shooing
away a crowd of naked children. Some more women followed, clicking their
tongues and exclaiming; evidently there was something that the children
ought not to have seen. I rounded the hut and saw a man's dead body sprawling
in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and
he could not have been dead many minutes. 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. As soon as I saw the dead man I sent an
orderly to a friend's house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle. I had already
sent back the pony, not wanting it to go mad with fright and throw me if
it smelt the elephant.
The orderly came back in
a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges, and meanwhile some Burmans
had arrived and told us that the elephant was in the paddy fields below,
only a few hundred yards away. As I started forward practically the whole
population of the quarter flocked out of the houses and followed me. They
had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to
shoot the elephant. They had not shown much interest in the elephant when
he was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was
going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English
crowd; besides they wanted the meat. It made me vaguely uneasy. I had no
intention of shooting the elephant — I had merely sent for the rifle to
defend myself if necessary — and it is always unnerving to have a crowd
following you. I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool, with
the rifle over my shoulder and an ever-growing army of people jostling
at my heels. At the bottom, when you got away from the huts, there was
a metalled road and beyond that a miry waste of paddy fields a thousand
yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy from the first rains and dotted
with coarse grass. The elephant was standing eight yards from the road,
his left side towards us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd's
approach. He was tearing up bunches of grass, beating them against his
knees to clean them and stuffing them into his mouth.
I had halted on the road.
As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought
not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant —
it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery — and
obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at
that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous
than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of ‘must’ was
already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about
until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least
want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while
to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.
But at that moment I glanced
round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand
at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance
on either side. 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. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer
about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle
in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that
I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of
me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing
me forward, irresistibly. 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. 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. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed
myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like
a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite
things. 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.
But I did not want to shoot
the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees,
with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed
to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish
about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted
to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there
was the beast's owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at
least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks,
five pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking
Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant
had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you
if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.
It was perfectly clear to
me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards
of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if
he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout
came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was
a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would
sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should
have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then
I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only of the watchful yellow
faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not
afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone.
A white man mustn't be frightened in front of ‘natives’; and so, in general,
he isn't frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went
wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled
on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if
that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That
would never do.
There was only one alternative.
I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get
a better aim. The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as
of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable
throats. They were going to have their bit of fun after all. The rifle
was a beautiful German thing with cross-hair sights. I did not then know
that in shooting an elephant one would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running
from ear-hole to ear-hole. I ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways
on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches
in front of this, thinking the brain would be further forward.
When I pulled the trigger
I did not hear the bang or feel the kick — one never does when a shot goes
home — but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd.
In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for
the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the
elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered.
He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful
impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last,
after what seemed a long time — it might have been five seconds, I dare
say — he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous
senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands
of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did
not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood
weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time.
That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt
his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But
in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed
beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk
reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time.
And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to
shake the ground even where I lay.
I got up. The Burmans were
already racing past me across the mud. It was obvious that the elephant
would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically
with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and
falling. His mouth was wide open — I could see far down into caverns of
pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing
did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where
I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red
velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots
hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying,
very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where
not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put
an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast
Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to
be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after
shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression.
The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.
In the end I could not stand
it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour
to die. Burmans were bringing dash and baskets even before I left, and
I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.
Afterwards, of course, there
were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner
was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally
I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a
mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion
was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men 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. 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
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