Shooting an Elephant
"Shooting an Elephant" is an essay by
George Orwell, written during the autumn of 1936. Orwell tells of shooting an elephant in British-controlled Burmaas an Imperial Policeman in 1926.
Orwell first published the essay in "New Writing" First series No. 2 in 1936. [Bott page 175] [Penguin Books page 7] After his death it was republished several times, including: "Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays" by
Secker and Warburgin 1950; [Bott page 182] "Inside the Whale and Other Essays" by Penguin Booksand Secker and Warburgin 1957; [Penguin Books] and "Selected Writings" by George Bottin 1958. [Bott]
Burmaover a period of sixty-two years (1823—1886), during which three Anglo-Burmese Wars took place, and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. Burma was administered as a province of Indiauntil 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony; independence was attained as a result of the Aung San–Attlee agreementwhich guaranteed Burmese independence. Aung Sanwas assassinated after the agreement was formalized, but before it took effect and Burma attained its independence on January 4, 1948.
With a strong interest in the lives of the working class, George Orwell (born 1903 in India to a middle-class family but brought up in Britain) held the post of Assistant Superintendent in the British Imperial Police from 1922 to 1927. Obliged to enforce the laws of an imperial power with which he came to disagree, Orwell's distaste for totalitarian regimes developed. His criticisms of totalitarianism that came to fruition in
Nineteen Eighty-fourand Animal Farmhave their foundations in his years in Burma.
In Moulmein, the main character and first person narrator (ethnocentric stereotype) is a police officer during a period of intense anti-European sentiment. Although all his sympathies lie with the Burmese, he is obligated to act in his official role as a representative of the oppressive imperial power. As such, he is subjected to constant baiting by the Burmese, especially by the young Buddhist priests, whom he calls the "worst of all".
After receiving a call regarding a normally tame elephant's rampage (due probably to the animal coming into '
musth'), the narrator, armed with a .44 caliber Winchester rifleand mounted on a pony, heads to the bazaar where the elephant has been seen. Entering one of the poorest quarters, he receives conflicting reports and contemplates leaving, thinking the incident is a hoax. The narrator then sees a village woman chasing the children who are looking at the corpse of an Indian whom the elephant has trampled and killed. He sends an orderly to bring an elephant rifleand, followed by a crowd of roughly two thousand, heads toward the paddy field where the elephant has stopped to graze.
The narrator originally sent for the elephant gun for his own protection, and when he sees that the elephant is obviously quite docile he knows that he ought not to shoot it. He is aware, however, that the crowd fully expects him to kill the elephant, and realizes that he is, in fact, trapped by the crowd's expectations, and by his own fear of looking foolish. He realizes as well that if one empire enslaves another, it places itself in a position of authority from which it cannot escape. He knows that if he decides to get closer in an attempt to gauge the
musthof the elephant and if he has misjudged the animal's mood, his poor rifle skills would likely result in his death—perhaps to the delight of the crowd. From this the narrator concludes that he cannot avoid shooting this magnificent animal.
Aiming his perceived location of the elephant's brain, the narrator fires a shot that brings the elephant to its knees. After another shot, the elephant gains its footing only to be brought down with a third round. The elephant being still alive, the narrator fires two more heavy rounds and then a clip of regular rifle rounds into the beast—all to no avail. Unable to stand the elephant's agony any longer, he leaves the scene, only to learn that it took the elephant a further thirty minutes to die before being stripped of its meat by the crowd. The incident leaves the narrator with a thorough distaste for imperialism and for acting a certain way just to save face or avoid looking like a fool.
An anti-imperialist essayist, Orwell frequently and clearly states his displeasure with colonial Britain: "I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing... I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British." Trapped in a system not of his own making, he adds, "all I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served ... I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind." Reflectively, the narrator realizes that being forced to impose strict laws and to shoot the elephant--he states his feelings against the act, but submits after comprehending he "had got to shoot the elephant"--illustrates an inherent problem of hegemony: "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." By enforcing the strict British rule, he is forfeiting his freedom while concurrently oppressing the Burmese. A call to end imperialism, "Shooting an Elephant", ironically, appeals to the British to cease colonialism to maintain "their" freedom.
The degree to which the story is fiction has been disputed.
Bernard Crick, who wrote a biography of Orwell, "George Orwell: A Life", has cast doubt on the idea that Orwell himself actually shot an elephant. No independent account of Orwell's actions has been found and there was no official record of the incident, which was unusual considering the destruction of valuable property. Peter Davison, the editor of Orwell's Complete Works, includes an interview with George Stuart, a contemporary of Orwell's in Burma, who said that Orwell was transferred to Katharas punishment for shooting an elephant. Davison also includes in the complete works a news item from the Rangoon Gazette, 22 March, 1926which describes a Major E.C. Kenny shooting an elephant in similar circumstances.
Topsy the Elephant
* cite book |title=Selected Writings |last=Bott |first=George |authorlink= |year=1968 |origyear=1958 |publisher=Heinemann Educational Books |location=London, Melbourne, Toronto, Singapore, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Auckland, Ibadan |isbn=0-4351-3675-5 |pages=25-33, 175, 182
* cite book |title=Inside the Whale and other essays |author=
Penguin Books|year=1969 |origyear=1957 |location=England, Australia |isbn=0-1400-1185-4 |pages=7, 91-98
* [http://orwell.ru/library/articles/elephant/english/e_eleph "Shooting an Elephant"] - HTML version
* [http://www.netcharles.com/orwell/essays/col-shootelp.htm "Shooting an Elephant"] Complete essay with search option.
* [http://www.weberberg.de/skool/schwerpunktthema-abitur-one-language-many-voices.html About "Shooting an Elephant"] Interpretations of and more background information on the essay
* [http://www.time.com/time/asia/traveler/021017/orwell.html "Orwell's Burma", an essay in "Time"]
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