Read our complete notes on the essay “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. Our notes cover Shooting an Elephant summary and detailed analysis.
Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell Summary
The narrator of the essay starts with describing the hate he is confronted with in a town in Burma. He says that he is a sub-divisional police officer and is hated by the locals in “aimless, petty kind of way”. He also confesses to being on the wrong side of the history as he explains the inhuman tortures of the British Raj on the local prisoners.
After describing his conditions, he starts telling a story of a fine morning which he considers as “enlightening”. He is told on the phone about an elephant which has shattered his fetters and gone mad, intimidating the localities and causing destructions. The mahout i.e. went in the incorrect way searching for the elephant and now is almost twelve hour’s journey away. The Burmese are unable to stop the elephant as no one in their whole population has a gun or any other weapon and seems to be quite helpless in front of the merciless elephant.
After the phone call, Orwell goes out to search the elephant. While asking in the neighborhood for where they have last sighted the elephant, he suddenly hears yells from a little distance away and immediately follows it. Going towards the elephant he finds a dead labor around the corner lying in the mud, being a victim of the elephant’s brutality. After seeing the dead labor, he sends orderly to bring him a gun that should be strong enough to kill an elephant.
In the meanwhile, Orwell is informed by the local people about the location of the elephant that was in the paddy field. After seeing the gun in Orwell’s hand, a large number of local people start following him, even those who were previously uninterested in the incident. All of them are only interested and getting excited about the shooting of the elephant. In the field, Orwell sees the elephant calmly gazing and decided not to kill it as it would be wrong to kill such a peaceful creature and to kill it will be like abolishing ‘a huge and costly piece of machinery’.
However, when he gazes back at the mob behind, it has expanded to a thousand and is still expanding, supposing him to fire the elephant. To them, Orwell is like a magician and is tasked with amusing them. By the first thought, he realizes that he is unable to resist the crowd’s wish to kill the elephant and the right price of white westerner’s takeover of the Position is white gentlemen’s independence. He seems to be a kind of “puppet” that is guaranteed to fulfill their subject’s expectancy.
Consequently, Orwell decides to shoot the elephant or in another case, the crowd will laugh at him, which was intolerable to him. At first, he thinks to see the response of the elephant after slightly approaching it, however, it seems dangerous and would make the crowd laugh at him which was utterly humiliating for him. To avoid undesirable awkwardness, he has to kill the elephant. He pointed the gun at the brain of the elephant and fires.
As Orwell fires, the crowd breaks out in anticipation. Being hit by the shot, the elephant bends towards its lap and starts dribbling. Orwell fires the second shot, the elephant appears worse but doesn’t die. As he fires the final gunshot, the elephant shouts it out and falls, fast-moving in the field where he was placed. The elephant is still alive while Orwell shot him more and more but it seems to him that it has no effect on it. The elephant seems to be in great agony and is “helpless to live yet helpless to die”. Orwell, being unable to see the elephant to suffer, go away from the sight. He later heard that the elephant took almost half an hour to pass away and villagers take the meal off its bone shortly after its death.
Orwell’s killing of the monster remained a huge controversy. The owner of the elephant stayed heated, but then again as he was Indian, he has no legal alternative. The aged old people agreed with the Orwell’s killing of the elephant but for the younger one, it appears to be unsuitable to murder an elephant as it killed a coolie– a manual labor. For them, the life of an elephant was additional worth than a life of a coolie. On the one hand, Orwell thinks that he is fortunate that the monster murdered a coolie as it will give his act a lawful clarification while on the other hand, he wonders that anyone among his companions would assume that he murdered the elephant just not to look a fool.
Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell Literary Analysis
About the Author:
George Orwell was one of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century who was well-known for his essays, novels, and articles. His works were most of the times focused on social and political issues. His work is prominent among his contemporary writers because he changed the minds of people regarding the poor. His subject matters are; the miseries of the poor, their oppression by the elite class, and the ills of the British colonialism.
Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell is a satirical essay on the British Imperialism.
The story is a first-person narrative in which the narrator describes his confused state of mind and his inability to decide and act without hesitation. The narrator is a symbol of British colonialism in Burma who, through a window to his thoughts, allegorically gives us an insight into the conflicting ideals of the system.
The essay is embedded with powerful imagery and metaphors. The tone of the essay is not static as it changes from a sadistic tone to a comic tone from time to time. The elephant in the story is the representation of the true inner self of the narrator. He has to kill it against his will in order to maintain the artificial persona he has to bear as a ruler.
The narrator has a sort of hatred for almost all the people that surround him. He hates the Burmese and calls them “evil spirited beasts”, he hates his job, he hates his superiors, he hates British colonialism and even hates himself sometimes for not being able to act according to his will.
On the surface, the essay is a narration of an everyday incident in a town but represents a very grave picture on a deeper level. Orwell satirizes the inhumane behavior of the colonizers towards the colonized and does so very efficiently by using the metaphor of the elephant.
The metaphor of the elephant can be interpreted in many ways. The elephant can also be considered to stand for the job of the narrator which has created a havoc in his life (as the elephant has created in the town). The narrator wants to get rid of it through any possible way and is ready to do anything to put an end to this misery. Also, the elephant is powerful and so is the narrator because of his position but both of them are puppets in the hands of their masters. Plus, they both are creating miseries in the lives of the locals.
Yet another interpretation of this metaphor can be that the elephant symbolizes the local colonized people. The colonizers are ready to kill any local who revolts against their rule just as the narrator kills the elephant which has defied the orders of its master.
Shooting an Elephant Main Themes
Following is the major theme of the essay Shooting an Elephant.
Ills of British Imperialism:
George Orwell, in the narrative essay Shooting an Elephant, expresses his feelings towards British imperialism. The British Raj did not care for anything but for their own material wealth and their ruling personas. The rulers were ready to take the life of any local who dared to stand or speak against their oppression. This behavior of the rulers made the locals full of hatred and mistrust. Therefore, a big gap was created between the colonizers and the colonized which was bad for both of them.
This theme strikes the reader throughout the essay. For instance, the narrator talks about “the dirty work of the empire”. He narrates the conditions of the prisoners in cells who are tortured in an inhumane way. This shows the behavior of the British Raj towards those who dared to stand against their oppression.
The narrator also uses bad adjectives for the locals like “yellow-faced” and even expresses his wish to kill one of them. He does on purpose i.e. to reflect on the point that the colonizers considered the colonizing low humans or probably lower than humans.