"Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell is a narrative essay about Orwell's time as a police officer for the British Raj in colonial Burma. The essay delves into an inner conflict that Orwell experiences in his role of representing the British Empire and upholding the law. At the opening of the essay Orwell explains that he is opposed to the British colonial project in Burma. In explicit terms he says that he's on the side of the Burmese people,who he feels are oppressed by colonial rule. As a police officer he sees the brutalities of the imperial project up close and first hand. He resents the British presence in the country.
Inevitably then, he faces challenges as a police officer representing British imperial power. The people of Burma hate the empire too, and thus they hate Orwell, for he is the face of the empire. They harass him and mock him and seek opportunities to laugh at him. He explains that at the time of the events, he is too young to grasp the dilemma of his situation, or to know how to deal with it. He thus finds himself resenting the Burmese people as well. The one thing that the Burmese have over the British is the ability to mock and ridicule them. Orwell's entire focus as a police officer thus becomes about avoiding the ridicule of the Burmese.
The narrative centers around the event of a day when all of these conflicted emotions manifest themselves and Orwell faces them and understands them. On this day, Orwell learns that an elephant has broken its chain and it is undergoing a bout of "must" (a passing hormonal disorder that causes elephants to become uncontrollably violent). The elephant is rampaging through a bazaar, wreaking havoc. Feeling compelled to do some decent policing, Orwell sets out with a small rifle to see what's happening. He states that he has no intention of killing the elephant.
When he arrives in the shanty town area he finds the mess the elephant has made. It has trampled grass huts and turned over a garbage disposal van and it has killed a man. Orwell sends for an elephant rifle, though he still has no intention of killing the elephant. He states that he merely wants to defend himself. With the rifle, he's led down to the paddy fields where he sees the giant elephant peacefully grazing.
Upon laying eyes on the elephant he instantly feels that it would be wrong to kill it. He has no inclination to destroy something so complex and beautiful. He describes the beauty and great value of the animal. It would go against everything in him to kill it. He says it would be like murder. But when looks back to see the people watching, he realizes that the crowd is massive—at least two thousand people!
He feels their eyes on him, and their great expectations of his role. They want to see the spectacle. But more importantly, he feels, they expect him to uphold the performance of power that he is meant to represent as an officer of the British Empire. At this stage Orwell has the clear revelation that all white men in the colonized world are beholden to the people whom they colonize. If he falters, he will let down the guise of power, but most of all, he will create an opportunity for the people to laugh. Nothing terrifies him more than the prospect of humiliation by the Burmese crowd. Now, the prospect of being trampled by the elephant no longer scares him because it would risk death. The worst part of that prospect would rather be that the crowd would laugh. In this way, he realizes that the entire enterprise of the empire is kept afloat by the personal fear of humiliation of individual officers.
He thus gets down on the ground, takes aim with the powerful elephant gun with cross-hairs in the viewer, and he fires at the elephant's brain. He hits the elephant and the crowd roars. But the elephant doesn't die. A disturbing change comes over it and merely seems to age. He fires again and this time brings it slowly to its knees. But still it doesn't go down. He fires again and it comes back up, dramatically rising on hind legs and lifting its trunk before thundering to the earth. Still however, it remains alive. Orwell goes to it and finds that it's still breathing. He proceeds to unload bullet after bullet into the elephant's heart, but it won't die. The people have swarmed in to steal the meat. Without describing his shame or guilt, he leaves the elephant alive, suffering terribly. He learns later that it took half an hour for the elephant to die. There's some discussion among the other police officers about whether or not he did the right thing. The older ones think he did. The younger ones feel that it's a shame to shoot an elephant for killing a Burmese collie.
George Orwell's 1936 essay "Shooting an Elephant" is about a British police officer, serving the Empire in occupied Burma, who has grown weary and bitter about the role of his nation in the less-developed regions the occupation of which constituted that empire. The narrator recognizes that he is, in the eyes of the Burmese people, synonymous with the British Empire and, as such, is a lightening rod for anti-British sentiments that run deep among the...
George Orwell's 1936 essay "Shooting an Elephant" is about a British police officer, serving the Empire in occupied Burma, who has grown weary and bitter about the role of his nation in the less-developed regions the occupation of which constituted that empire. The narrator recognizes that he is, in the eyes of the Burmese people, synonymous with the British Empire and, as such, is a lightening rod for anti-British sentiments that run deep among the indigenous population. The narrator's description of his responsibilities as a colonial police officer and of the quandary in which he found himself when an elephant temporarily rampaged and killed a local serves as a microcosm for the far greater conflict that inevitably results when one nation invades and occupies another. As Orwell's essay progresses, the narrator is convinced that he must shoot the elephant, which is now passive and nonthreatening, in order to prove himself in the eyes of the public he has come to loathe while secretly cheering on as his attitude towards his own country continues to deteriorate. In Orwell's narrative, then, neither side is particularly meritorious, although his sympathies clearly lie with the victim and not with the oppressor.
When contemplating a thesis statement for "Shooting an Elephant," it is precisely the narrator's bitterness and observations regarding the effects of occupation on occupier as well as on occupied that should form the basis of such a statement. Illustrating this point is the following sentence from Orwell's essay that encapsulates the author's sentiments well:
"All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evilspirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible."
A logical thesis statement for "Shooting an Elephant," then, could be "George Orwell's essay is an indictment of the injustices of empire and a scathing comment on the nefarious way imperialism dehumanizes the conqueror as much as it does the conquered."