Shooting an Elephant Summary

George Orwell

Shooting an Elephant

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Shooting an Elephant Summary

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Shooting an Elephant is a 1936 essay by British novelist and satirist George Orwell, first published in the anti-fascist literary magazine New Writing and later broadcast by the BBC Home Service in 1948. Taking place during the British occupation of Burma, it focuses on an unnamed narrator, considered by many to be a stand-in for Orwell himself, as he is tasked to shoot an aggressive elephant while serving as a police officer in the country. The essay is considered by many to be a metaphor for British imperialism, a subject Orwell wrote of critically in many of his nonfiction works. Orwell did spend significant time in Burma, and the extent to which Shooting an Elephant is based on actual events is unknown. It has been extensively praised for its exploration of themes of imperialism and its corrosive effect on the colonizer, the relationship between conqueror and conquered, and the effect of a person’s conscience after they commit terrible acts for what they are told is the greater good. Shooting an Elephant has been reprinted extensively in collections of Orwell’s shorter works, and was adapted into a 2015 short film.

Burma was held as a British colony between 1886 at the conclusion of the third Anglo-Burmese War, and its independence in 1948. Orwell held the post of Assistant Superintendent in the British Indian Imperial Police from 1922 to 1927, when the story takes place. This is when the narrator’s story takes place as well, during a period of intense anti-European sentiment in Burma. Although the narrator sympathizes with the Burmese, his official role makes him a symbol of the British occupation, and he is frequently harassed and jeered by the locals. One day, he receives a call that a normally tame elephant is rampaging through a village. He heads off with a Winchester rifle and riding on a pony to track it down. When he arrives at the village, he asks around and receives conflicting reports from the poverty-stricken locals. He thinks the incident may have been a hoax, but soon finds a man who has been trampled by the elephant. He sends an order for an elephant rifle and is followed by thousands of people as he tracks the elephant to a rice paddy where it is resting.

The narrator starts to have second thoughts, regretting that he has to kill the elephant now that it is resting peacefully. However, the crowd wants to see blood and is chanting for the narrator to take the shot. The narrator tries to stall for time, examining the elephant’s behavior and delaying to try to make the case that maybe it doesn’t need to be killed. However, the people continue to pressure, and eventually he takes the shot. The elephant is wounded, but doesn’t die. Several additional shots also fail to finish off the beast, and eventually the narrator breaks down and leaves the scene, unable to watch as the elephant dies slowly of its wounds. He later finds out that as soon as the elephant died, the locals stripped it to the bone and took the meat for their own purposes.

At his office, all his older colleagues agree that he made the right decision to shoot the elephant, but his younger colleagues make the argument that the elephant’s life was worth more than the man it trampled. As the essay ends, the narrator wonders to himself if anyone will ever understand that he only made the decision to shoot the elephant to avoid looking like a fool in front of the people he is responsible for policing. He is filled with self-loathing for the empire he serves, as well as for the people he polices, as he feels the conflicting interests make his job impossible. The implication is that this no-win situation he finds himself in is the natural result of the British Empire’s attempt to administer foreign countries.

George Orwell is considered one of the most significant 20th century British writers, and is best known for his two most widely read novels: the dystopian political thriller 1984 and the allegorical anti-communist novel Animal Farm, both of which have received multiple Hollywood adaptations of the last half-century. He is credited with coining many new words in the English language in 1984 in particular, including “Cold War”, “Big Brother”, “thought police” and “doublethink.” In all, Orwell wrote a total of six novels, several inspired by the events of his life, as well as a trio of non-fiction books based on his early life in London, his time among the working class in England, and his adventures in the anti-fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. Although George Orwell died young, succumbing to Tuberculosis at forty-seven years old, he remains widely influential today for both his novels and his many essays on politics, literature, and culture. In 2008, The Times ranked him second on a list of the greatest British writers since 1945, and many of his works remain widely taught today.