The short story “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell is a narrative based on an experience that Orwell had whilst working in the territory of Burma (Myanmar), within British Raj, as an English police officer with the Indian Imperial Police.
The conflict the British police officer internally struggles with is the issue of imperialism, specifically stated as an “evil thing” (Broadview, pg 1403), despite working and living within a British colony of Burma. For Orwell, his major drawback is within the fact that he does not agree with the supremacy that is held over the Burmese people. As explained ” Theoretically- and secretly, of course- I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” (Broadview, pg 1403). Orwell repeatedly mentions evidence of British cruelty, exhibiting this is in images throughout his story, such as is the depiction of prisoners in cages. Moreover, the language employed by Orwell depicts an English colonial, in that he refers to the natives of Burma as yellow.
Throughout the story, Orwell is presented with the opportunity to have a deeper understanding of imperialism through his experience of coming into contact with the elephant. He explains he did not want to shoot the elephant, but as an officer of Imperial Britain, he was required to follow the status quo of Europeans. Hence, “when the whiteman turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys” (p.1406) means Orwell is an agent of the tyrant, Imperial Britain, and lost his freedom because he was sympathetic personally towards the oppression of the Burmese, but was required to act under British Imperialism and display power and confidence. Ultimately, this self-tyranny was imposed by the Burmese’ expectation that Orwell would kill the elephant. Thousands had followed him to kill the elephant, but Orwell originally had no intention of harming the elephant. Nonetheless, it became clear the elephant had to be destroyed in order to save face and satisfy the local Burmese spectators. Thus, Orwell was a tyrant imprisoned in a self-made cage.
Throughout Orwell’s encounter with the elephant he is able to come to a better understanding of imperialism, as the elephant proves both as a key symbol of colonialism as well as imperialism. Comparable to the Burmese people who have been colonized, the elephant exhibits destructive behaviours due to being oppressed by the mahout. This is evident as stated in ” One day, a minor incident takes places that gives Orwell insight into the true nature of imperialism and the reasons behind it” (Broadview, pg. 1403). Despite the must behaviours of the elephant that led to destruction, the Burmese peoples’ more subtle insubordination may not be assuredly good things; they are made more understandable given the oppressive conditions that both the elephant and Burmese population endure.
Furthermore, “his inability to resist the crowd’s bloodlust” (Broadview. Pg….) allows Orwell to realize that his authority over the locals is a vacant level of power and the true power the Burmese people hold over his actions. Orwell, the imperialist, is unable to act in such a way other than what is expected of him as a European police officer. In the aforementioned paradox of colonialism, and by limiting the freedom of others, the British have undoubtedly forced themselves into an exaggerated role of power to maintain their grip on authority.
Orwell is well aware he cannot tolerate the mistreatment that he would receive from the Burmese, by not shooting the elephant. Though as a colonist, he knows it is in the wrong. The consequences preceding killing the elephant is a hindrance for how the colonial cycle maintains itself. The Burmese people harmed through violence are silenced, like the elephant, or the people affected by the repercussions of the action of the British, like the mahout, are found with a loss of power or resources and unable to do anything. The critical point of Orwell’s final observations, “Finally, Orwell wonders if any of his comrades understood that he killed the elephant “solely to avoid looking a fool”, is that in which colonialism from afar can be interpreted logically but the real incentive of its savagery is the triumph of irrational insecurity. Orwell’s tone in the final paragraph is apathetic, in that he pays particular attention to the racial inequalities that are present in Burma. Moreover, in stating ” The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie” (Broadview.
pg 1408), Orwell is highlighting the colonial impact of the British peoples viewpoint, as well as his internal struggle with the decision regarding the choice he made in killing the elephant by analyzing the interpretations of the Europeans perspectives.