The short tale of George Orwell shooting an elephant is a description of life under colonial rule in the town of Moulmein in the then British Colony of Burma (Orwell). Orwell is working here as the top security officer in the subdivision. This status introduces Orwell to a multitude of realities that are precipitating life under colonial rule in the colonies. Orwell’s story centers on an incident involving a rampant elephant and the killing of a dead animal that terrorizes the residents of the city. This case brings to Orwell’s realization of the true existence of the imperial empire he represents. This analysis seeks to study the sections of Orwell’s narrative while noting the rhetorical and stylistic qualities. Moreover, by examining the evolving descriptions of the Elephant, this essay hopes to elucidate Orwell’s ultimate message regarding colonialism and the imperialist authority.
Before touching the incident involving the elephant, Orwell’s short story begins by describing the Burmese native’s disdain towards the occupying British. Despite not being able to marshal a full riot, the Burmese employ a host of mischievous tactics to challenge authority. European women walking through the bazar were spat on and Orwell himself was tripped a couple of times on the football pitch. These actions by the natives genuinely irk Orwell. This introduction precedes Orwell’s confession of his negative view on imperialism. Describing it as an “evil thing”, the author goes on to paint the dire conditions the Empire creates. Further, He considers himself, though in the employ of the British, as standing against the oppressor. These paradoxical feelings give a glimpse into the tortured life of the torturer i.e. the inward conflict the oppressor faces while oppressing.
Delving into the actual shooting of the elephant reveals the authors true view on the machine that is Imperialism. The elephant at the centre of the narrative is a tame, work animal that on the day of the incident had a case of the ‘must’. In its rouge frenzy, the animal evaded its mahout and journeyed to Moulmein where it killed a cow, raided some fruit stalls of their stock and destroyed a bamboo hut. This account of the elephants elicits the image of destruction and devastation. Moreover, the explanation of how the animal dealt a Dravidian coolie an agonising death enhances the destructive appeal the elephant wields in this context.
Considering the destruction the elephant causes, Orwell’s foremost encounter with the beast reveals a contrastingly peaceful beast, seemingly incapable of the previous mischief. Leaving the town, the creature settles on some muddy paddy fields where it feeds on grass and this is where he sets his eyes on it. Dabbing the beast’s aura as grandmotherly, the author is in great conflict as to whether to shoot the elephant, noting its obliviousness to the massive crowd that is egging him on to gun down the beast. Moreover, the animal presents considerable economic value and shooting it may result in conflict with the owner. Despite his hesitation, Orwell realises that the large crowd of natives gathered at the scene will settle for nothing less than a dead elephant.
The Elephant’s final description in the story ironically captures its magnificence in its final moments. As Orwell Shoots it from a far, the elephant acquires a shrunken and stricken form, paralysed on its feet before sagging to its knees. A second shot had the beast gingerly back to its feet though with a drooping head. The final shot fell the elephant with a trumpet, a contrasting gesture in its defeat. In concluding incident, Orwell recounts the laboured death of the elephant, him waiting for the beast to die, but its breath would not weaken. Further, to emphasise how hard it was to kill the elephant, the author narrates how the gasps of the suffering elephant continued steadily despite his use of all the ammunition available. The death of the elephant was slow and greatly agonising, in great contrast to the peaceful grass-eating beast described immediately prior to its shooting.
Orwell employs great imagery and metaphor in this short story. The elephant is a metaphor for imperialism an also the natives. When we perceive it as representing the Burmese people, its mischievous behaviour is akin to Orwell’s description of the native’s negative actions to the occupiers. Further, the elephant demonstrates that no animal, or person, enjoys oppression and eventually him or her rebels, similar to the animal’s attack of ‘must’. Adopting the elephant as representing the empire, its description as property and machinery mimics the imperialist view of the colony as possessions, including the people therein. The slow and painful death demonstrates the challenge that is ending imperialism and Orwell’s effort in dispatching the creature only serves to exemplify the effort required to achieve liberation.
Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” Orwell, a. Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. London: Secker and Warburg, 1950. Web. 21 March 2017.