Empires and Elephants

A Literary Criticism of George Orwell's famous short story "Shooting an Elephant"

George Orwell’s short story “Shooting an Elephant” unmasks the horror and hypocrisy of British imperialism. Set in Burma during the later stages of the British occupation, the story depicts Orwell as a police officer attempting to kill a rogue elephant but being caught in a conflict between satisfying the expectations of the natives and violating his own conscience. Though at first glance it seems no more than a reminiscent anecdote of the great author, the story contains deeply woven elements of irony and metaphor that illumine its central theme. Orwell and the elephant form a tragic duo in the story: Orwell’s inner conflict reveals the secret evils of empire while the elephant represents the empire itself, dying unwittingly by the consequences of its deeds.

From the beginning of the narrative, Orwell’s inner conflict about the evils of imperialism manifests itself. Mocked and badgered by the natives of the city, Orwell struggles to reconcile his hatred of the tormenting Burmese with his simultaneous hatred of the imperial occupation, replete with the squalor and torture that it imposed upon the natives. Although he “had already made up [his] mind that imperialism was an evil thing,” he nevertheless resents his suffering at the hands of the impudent natives (918). Unable to decide whether the natives or the empire deserve his disdain more, Orwell is summoned to dispatch an elephant which has gone rogue and threatened the city. He then discovers the answer to his plaguing questions.

In his killing of the elephant, Orwell reveals the true hypocrisy and evils of political imperialism. Although his conscience cries out against the elephant’s death, Orwell finds himself unable to refuse the expectations of a large crowd of natives who had gathered to witness the spectacle. As Orwell writes, “[I]t was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East” (921). Orwell feels incredible pressure to perform the role that the natives expected him to perform as a British officer, afraid to break the stereotype that the British Empire itself had placed upon him. In a bitter twist of irony, Orwell realizes that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys” (921). The very means by which the empire sought to control the natives – intimidation and overwhelming awe – had backfired upon the empire itself. Having written a script by which the natives must obey, the empire now found itself helplessly bound to that script. As Orwell pithily concludes, “[E]very white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at” (921). Eventually bending to the crowd’s demands, Orwell becomes a microcosmic representation of the British Empire at large.

Sadly for the elephant, the poor beast plays the role of the empire in this metaphoric drama. Initially overtaken with desire and greed, the elephant rages throughout the town, laying waste in his excitement. He is unaware at first that his actions have sown the seeds of his downfall, retiring out of the town to the nearby countryside to cool off in peace. Unfortunately, the evil side of empire, represented in Orwell, has come back to destroy the elephant. Unable to play any role except that which has been carved out for him, Orwell shoots the elephant three times while graphically narrating the animal’s struggle against death. Like the monolithic British Empire, which is already beginning its slow and interminable fall at the time of the story, the elephant falls heavily to the ground and remains in a tortured state of half-death for a long time before finally expiring. Despite Orwell’s attempts to put the beast out of its pain, the elephant succumbs to the slow expiration of its life. The total helplessness of both Orwell and the elephant is a stinging reflection of the empire’s inability to control its destiny and its downfall.

Perhaps the most subtle yet most clear connection between Orwell’s anecdote and the historical situation of the British Empire is revealed in the conclusion, with Orwell briefly mentioning the discussions which took place about his deed. Both young and old Brits gather to argue about the act, with some taking the side of Orwell and some condemning him. Like any great event of history, the fall of the British Empire never ceases to inspire debate among historians and laymen alike. However, in the end, no intelligent debate can ever grasp the reality of events which have been buried under the impenetrable cloak of the past. Those who lived in any historical event and experienced it firsthand would probably have a different analysis than those who discuss it at a comfortable distance of several centuries. Orwell’s last line shatters the illusions of those who debate his actions: “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” (923). Perhaps other firsthand witnesses of the past could offer similarly enlightening contributions to modern concepts of historical events.

Works Cited

Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” Current Issues and Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Argument, with Readings. Eds. Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau. 9th ed. Boston: St. Martin’s, 2011. 918-923. Print.


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