43 pages 1 hour read

George Orwell

Shooting an Elephant

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1936

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Shooting an Elephant”

“Shooting an Elephant,” is an essay by British author George Orwell, first published in the magazine New Writing in 1936. Orwell, born Eric Blair, is world-renowned for his sociopolitical commentary. He served as a British officer in Burma from 1922 to 1927, then worked as a journalist, novelist, short-story writer, and essayist for the remainder of his career, going on to produce celebrated works such as Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). Before penning this essay, Orwell wrote extensively about his time in Southeast Asia in his first novel, Burmese Days, also published in 1934. This guide refers to the edition of the essay in Orwell’s A Collection of Essays published by Harcourt Publishing in 1946.

At the beginning of the essay, the narrator (apparently Orwell himself) is in a difficult position—caught between his duty and his conscience, between what he is required to do and what he wants to do. Despite his job as a British officer in Burma, he states that he had “already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing” and that he “hated it more bitterly than I could possibly make clear” (148). He explains that he “is hated by large numbers of people” and that he “was an obvious target” (148). Orwell describes a state of stress and pressure, making it clear to readers that he is in an “us versus them” position and inviting them into the conflict. He describes the following events as “enlightening” because they gave him “a better glimpse” into the “real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act” (149).

Early one morning, a Burmese officer calls to let him know “that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar” (149) and asks him to do something. The narrator grabs a rifle, gets on a pony, and heads into town to determine what is going on. Many people stop him along the way to explain that it was “not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one that has gone ‘must’” (149). Although the elephant had been chained up, it managed to break free and escape. Unfortunately, the mahout, the one who would normally wrangle the elephant, was twelve hours away.

The elephant had apparently destroyed property, killed a cow, and turned over a van full of garbage. But after questioning people in town, the narrator could not get the story straight: “That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events, the vaguer it becomes” (150). The narrator then comes upon a hut and finds a dead body. Orwell writes, “He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and could not have been dead many minutes” (150). The narrator assesses the body and sees the man was killed by the elephant. He adds, “Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I’ve seen looked devilish” (151).

Knowing the elephant killed someone, and it was likely close by, the narrator sends an orderly for another rifle. People start to gather knowing that something is about to happen. Orwell writes, “It was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat” (151). As the crowd grows, so too does the turmoil over what to do. The elephant and the Burmese people close in on the narrator as he considers the circumstances of the crowd and his duty, conscience, and ego. He writes, “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” (153).

He is conflicted as he charges forward, getting closer to the elephant. He writes, “Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal” (153). He continues to go hesitate—assessing the crowd, the elephant’s worth, the dead man’s worth, and his desire not to show fear in front of the native people. He finally shoots the elephant, and the topic of his internal dialogue moves from what he must do to the unease he feels watching the animal die. He writes, “I felt that I had to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die” (155). Despite doing what he was supposed to do as a British officer, something that was legally his right to do, he feels no solace because he realizes he did it solely for appearance.