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George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” Short Story Essay

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Updated: Jun 1st, 2021

Introduction

George Orwell is best known for his allegorical novella Animal Farm and a dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. His realistic short stories that date back to his days as an imperial police officer in Burma often elude readers’ attention. The early years spent in a country colonized by the British Empire had a lasting impression on the writer and inspired him to explore the themes of morals, personal principles, and power dynamics in his works.

In Shooting an Elephant, Orwell’s character is an imperialist police officer in colonized Burma. As he hears about an elephant rampaging through a bazaar, he has nothing left to do than to slander the animal. The incident gives rise to strong feelings of grief and discomfort and impacts the fragile relationships with both his compatriots and Burmans. The short story Shooting an Elephant is significant to colonialism studies due to its structure, quality, and applicability.

Structure

George Orwell gives a panoramic view of the ambiguous power dynamics between the British Empire and its colony, Burma, through the perspective of one character. The writer does not show this relationship as strictly black-and-white as he does not label either of the sides as good or evil. Instead, by making the main character reflective and conscientious, Orwell lets the reader understand what motivates both parties.

The story is structured in a way that showcases the main conflict three times throughout the narrative. The first example of the subverted power dynamic is at the very beginning of the story. Orwell writes: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people (1).” Then the author notes that this hatred came from being “important enough for this to happen to [him]” for the first time in his life (Orwell, 1). The writer shows that power comes at a certain price, and in the case of the main character, he has to suffer hostility and isolation.

The second time that the topic of the flipped power dynamic resurfaces is when the main character gets a rifle for self-defense. The locals practically force him into killing the animal: “They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant (Orwell, 3).” This scene is particularly interesting as it is placed in the very heart of the story. The main character is supposed to be the most influential among all since he is of British descent and armed.

However, the crowd has its own interests and can overpower him in case he does not oblige. At the end of the story, the main character does not gain any more respect from the locals. They feast on the elephant’s dead body while the animal’s owner is furious. Thus, the conflict in Shooting an Elephant never comes to any satisfying resolution.

Quality

Dynamic narration, believable characters, and the presence of complex topics such as power and colonialism attest to the high quality of Shooting an Elephant. It is not only easy to follow the events but also quite thrilling. Orwell accomplishes this effect by controlling the sentence length and contrasting short and long sentences by putting them back-to-back within the same paragraph. The following fragment is an excellent example of this strategy: “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 (Orwell, 4).” Stopping in the middle of a road is a short action described with a short sentence. Pondering, whether it is worth to kill an elephant, takes a little bit more time; therefore, a longer sentence is needed.

The believable main character adds to the overall quality of the short story. He is an ordinary man not devoid of character flaws, which makes his personality multilayered. Killing an animal is a cruel thing to do, and the reader sees the main character’s regret and repentance: “In the end, I could not stand [watching the elephant die] any longer and went away (Orwell, 7).” One should note that Orwell embarks on describing such complex emotions without being self-righteous. The author in this story is detached from the events. He does not make any judgment or tells what would be the right thing to do. By following the narration, sympathizing with the main character, and comprehending the depth of the discussed topics, the reader can draw his or her own conclusions and even take some life lessons.

Applicability

Shooting an Elephant can help with understanding the struggles of colonialism. Even though the story depicts a specific situation that took place back at the beginning of the 20th century, its moral is timeless and still applies. While setting the scene for his story, Orwell writes: “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 (2).” Thus, what happens next needs to be interpreted with regards to this perspective.

Usually, elephants are wild animals, but this one who ran amok in the village belonged to a resident. The animal was probably captured against its will and has been exploited its entire life. Keeping the previous citation in mind, it is possible to draw a parallel between an animal suffering in captivity and a nation oppressed by a colonist regime. From this standpoint, the reader can understand why the elephant wanted to break free, even if it meant wreaking havoc on its surroundings.

Continuing the allegory, the main character takes the role of the government. As it sees that a riot has started, it has nothing left to do than to use brutal power and violence to stifle it. In Shooting an Elephant, not a single person laments the animal’s death – instead, the main character hears “the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd (Orwell, 6).” Therefore, the reader can understand that imperialism does not allow for peaceful cohabitation. It implies exploitation for nothing in return and severe punishment in case of disobedience.

Conclusion

Published in 1936, Shooting an Elephant is one of Orwell’s masterpieces where topics of power and colonialism find reflection and development through both close-to-life descriptions and employment of allegory. The writer reminisces of his life in colonized Burma where, as a representative of the foreign superpower, he is hated and dismissed by locals. The structure allows for a careful exposition of the subverted relationship dynamic between the main character and Burmans.

The man’s origins and position make him influential only on paper. In reality, he has to consider what locals want, which eventually makes him cave to the crowd mentality. Quality-wise, Orwell creates a dramatic effect by manipulating the sentence length, adding dimensions to the main character, and putting complex emotions in the mix. The story can be of interest to those who would like to reflect on the legacy of colonialism through a real-life situation and the allegory of a killed animal that strived for freedom.

Work Cited

Orwell, George. Shooting an Elephant: And Other Essays. Secker and Warburg, 1950.

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