Shooting an Elephant is a narrative essay written by 1984 author, George Orwell. The essay’s themes include imperialism, oppression, and redemption. It’s told from the first person perspective of an Indian Imperial police officer—presumably Orwell himself—who has an epiphany while responding to a call about a rampaging elephant.
Orwell masterfully uses narration and description to capture the scenes and mood of Lower Burma during Imperial British rule. We sense the “anti-European feeling” from the townspeople along with the narrator’s own sense of oppression at the hands of the natives.
The oppressed natives don’t have the “guts to raise a riot” but rebel in subtler ways like “spit[ting] betel juice” on European women’s dresses and “stand[ing] on corners and jeer[ing] at Europeans.” Orwell is confused by the natives’ actions as he is “all for the Burmese and all against the oppressors, the British.”
He tells us that while the elephant is destroying their homes, raiding their fruit stocks, and even killing a man, the natives don’t seem to bother much. He writes, “The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it.”
Only when Orwell takes up a rifle do they rally behind him and get excited about killing the oppressive elephant. He seems to imply that the natives would readily revolt against an oppressor if they only had a leader they could rally behind.
This might explain why Orwell felt “vaguely uneasy” and unnerved with the thousands of natives that follow him. As a police officer, Orwell—and other police officers throughout the empire—are the projection of Imperial Britain’s power and would be the first to be targeted if a revolution were ever to break out.
Ironically, he finds himself caught between the “ever-growing army” behind him, and the giant elephant in front of him towards the end of the essay. The army comes to symbolize the growing resentment from the natives while the elephant, who is now harmless and peaceful, becomes a symbol for the Imperial British empire.
Orwell realizes “the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.” His earlier claim that he is “all for the Burmese” is put to the test, and he redeems himself by shooting the “preoccupied grandmotherly” elephant.
After the elephant goes down, Orwell uses descriptive words to let us hear the elephant’s dying breaths: “rhythmically with long rattling gasps.” In the same sentence he gives us a visual of the elephant on its side: “his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling.”
He uses a metaphor to describe and show the elephant’s enormous mouth: “I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat.” And employs similes to further elaborate on the elephant’s agony: “thick blood welled out of him like red velvet” and “tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock.” The slow death of the elephant is analogous with the British Empire’s eventual decline.
In retrospect, Orwell writes that he had no idea that the British Empire was dying while he was a police officer in Burma. He was “young and ill-educated” and was torn between his “hatred of the empire” and his “rage against the evil-spirited little beasts” who were making his life a living hell.
At first, keeping up the illusion of imperial power and respect seemed to underlie Orwell’s motivation for shooting the elephant. But, in the end, we find that he only did it “to avoid looking a fool.”
Read Shooting an Elephant here.