By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Shooting an Elephant’ is a 1936 essay by George Orwell (1903-50), about his time as a young policeman in Burma, which was then part of the British empire. The essay explores an apparent paradox about the behaviour of Europeans, who supposedly have the power over their colonial subjects.
Before we offer an analysis of Orwell’s essay, it might be worth providing a short summary of ‘Shooting an Elephant’, which you can read here.
‘Shooting an Elephant’: summary
Orwell begins by relating some of his memories from his time as a young police officer working in Burma. Although the extent to which the essay is autobiographical has been disputed, we will refer to the narrator as Orwell himself, for ease of reference.
He, like other British and European people in imperial Burma, was held in contempt by the native populace, with Burmese men tripping him up during football matches between the Europeans and Burmans, and the local Buddhist priests loudly insulting their European colonisers on the streets.
Orwell tells us that these experiences instilled in him two things: it confirmed his view, which he had already formed, that imperialism was evil, but it also inspired a hatred of the enmity between the European imperialists and their native subjects. Of course, these two things are related, and Orwell understands why the Buddhist priests hate living under European rule. He is sympathetic towards such a view, but it isn’t pleasant when you yourself are personally the object of ridicule or contempt.
He finds himself caught in the middle between ‘hatred of the empire’ he served and his ‘rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make [his] job impossible’.
The main story which Orwell relates takes place in Moulmein, in Lower Burma. An elephant, one of the tame elephants which the locals own and use, has given its rider or mahout the slip, and has been wreaking havoc throughout the bazaar. It has destroyed a hut, killed a cow, and raided some fruit stalls for food. Orwell picks up his rifle and gets on his pony to go and see what he can do.
He knows the rifle won’t be good enough to kill the elephant, but he hopes that firing the gun might scare the animal. Orwell discovers that the elephant has just trampled a man, a coolie or native labourer, to the ground, killing him. Orwell sends his pony away and calls for an elephant rifle which would be more effective against such a big animal. Going in search of the elephant, Orwell finds it coolly eating some grass, looking as harmless as a cow.
It has calmed down, but by this point a crowd of thousands of local Burmese people has amassed, and is watching Orwell intently. Even though he sees no need to kill the animal now it no longer poses a threat to anyone, he realises that the locals expect him to dispatch it, and he will lose ‘face’ – both personally and as an imperial representative – if he does not do what the crowd expects.
So he shoots the elephant from a safe distance, marvelling at how long the animal takes to die. He acknowledges at the end of the essay that he only shot the elephant because he did not wish to look like a fool.
‘Shooting an Elephant’: analysis
‘Shooting an Elephant’ is obviously about more than Orwell’s killing of the elephant: the whole incident was, he tells us, ‘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.’ The surprise is that despotic governments don’t merely impose their iron boot upon people without caring what their poor subjects think of them, but rather that despots do care about how they are judged and viewed by their subjects.
Among other things, then, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is about how those in power act when they are aware that they have an audience. It is about how so much of our behaviour is shaped, not by what we want to do, nor even by what we think is the right thing to do, but by what others will think of us.
Orwell confesses that he had spent his whole life trying to avoid being laughed at, and this is one of his key motivations when dealing with the elephant: not to invite ridicule or laughter from the Burmese people watching him.
To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
Note how ‘my whole life’ immediately widens to ‘every white man’s life in the East’: this is not just Orwell’s psychology but the psychology of every imperial agent. Orwell goes on to imagine what grisly death he would face if he shot the elephant and missed, and he was trampled like the hapless coolie the elephant had killed: ‘And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.’
The stiff upper lip of this final phrase is British imperialism personified. Being trampled to death by the elephant might be something that Orwell could live with (as it were); but being laughed at? And, worse still, laughed at by the ‘natives’? Unthinkable …
And from this point, Orwell extrapolates his own experience to consider the colonial experience at large: the white European may think he is in charge of his colonial subjects, but ironically – even paradoxically – the coloniser loses his own freedom when he takes it upon himself to subjugate and rule another people:
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives,’ and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.
So, at the heart of ‘Shooting an Elephant’ are two intriguing paradoxes: imperial rulers and despots actually care deeply about how their colonised subjects view them (even if they don’t care about those subjects), and the one who colonises loses his own freedom when he takes away the freedom of his colonial subjects, because he is forced to play the role of the ‘sahib’ or gentleman, setting an example for the ‘natives’, and, indeed, ‘trying to impress’ them. He is the alien in their land, which helps to explain this second paradox, but the first is more elusive.
However, even this paradox is perhaps explicable. As Orwell says, aware of the absurdity of the scene: ‘Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.’
The Burmese natives are the ones with the real power in this scene, both because they are the natives and because they outnumber the lone policeman, by several thousand to one. He may have a gun, but they have the numbers. He is performing for a crowd, and the most powerful elephant gun in the world wouldn’t be enough to give him power over the situation.
There is a certain inevitability conveyed by Orwell’s clever repetitions (‘I did not in the least want to shoot him … They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to shoot the elephant … I had no intention of shooting the elephant … I did not in the least want to shoot him … But I did not want to shoot the elephant’), which show how the idea of shooting the elephant gradually becomes apparent to the young Orwell.
These repetitions also convey how powerless he feels over what is happening, even though he acknowledges it to be unjust (when the elephant no longer poses a threat to anyone) as well as financially wasteful (Orwell also draws attention to the pragmatic fact that the elephant while alive is worth around a hundred pounds, whereas his tusks would only fetch around five pounds).
But he does it anyway, in an act that is purely for show, and which goes against his own will and instinct.
Discover more about Orwell’s non-fiction with our analysis of his ‘A Hanging’, our discussion of his essay on political language, and our thoughts on his autobiographical essay, ‘Why I Write’.