In the essay ‘Shooting and Elephant’ George Orwell provides a description of a task of killing a local elephant which he was forced to perform while serving an obligatory term as a police officer in Burma. The skill and beauty of the essay is that it manages to combine a sense of vivid, everyday description with intense meditation on life, death and the nature of responsibility. This paper will analyse how this is achieved, paying attention or Orwell’s use of prose, his capacity to evoke feeling through the most simple of descriptions and how this is mediated by his own sentiments about the nature of the work that he was doing and of the nature of the British Empire itself.
The essay beings with Orwell’s description of his occupation and the contradiction which this produces in him and his lived experience. He describes how he was ‘hated by large numbers of people’ and goes on to state that the general experience of European people in Burma was one of becoming the target of anger and abjection, although this rarely spilled out into absolute violence: ‘No one had the guts to raise a riot but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress.’ (31.) This simplicity of the hatred experienced by Europeans is added brought to forefront with the description of another every day event: ‘When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee, another Burman looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter.’ (31) These descriptions are then offset with equally matter of fact depictions of the violence of imperialism, and the effect which witnessing this had on Orwell himself:
‘In a job like that you see the dirty work of the Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking quarters of the lock-up, the grey, cowed faces of the long term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. (32)
This tension between the arbitrariness of his situation and the necessity of the job that he must do is carried through the essay. It lies at the hear the main task which it describes. When Orwell is informed that he must control a tame elephant that has gone on the rampage, he comments that the local population are helpless because they are unarmed. (32) In short, Orwell’s task is to protect the population from a danger which has only emerged through the presence of which he is a representation. This real sense of arbitrariness is off set by descriptions of the destruction which the elephant has caused. This is especially striking in the description of a dead body which Orwell finds lying in the mud: ‘He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony.’ (33) This death is treated as both tragic and is represented in a matter of fact way through Orwell’s journalistic prose. There is nothing redemptive about the man’s death.
As the essay progresses Orwell encounters the elephant, which has now returned to its tame state and he again draws attention to the ridiculous nature of the task which he feels he must perform. The elephant is now no longer a threat to anyone and could be returned and controlled as soon as its keeper is available: ‘As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – equivalent to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.’ (35) Upon resolving to return to the his station, however, he notices that he has been followed by a crowd of local people who expect the elephant to be shot: ‘I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot…They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. (37) He clearly feels a greater intimacy with the elephant than with the locals whom he must police, but he nonetheless is pushed into taking action as are result of their own view of him and of the position which he occupies. The fear of ridicule becomes the motivating factor in his decision; a fear which comes both from an objective hatred of his position and, nonetheless, a desire to defend it: ‘The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh.’ (38)
The descriptions of the death of the elephant are presented in a documentary style which achieve a pathos through their sheet matter-of-factness. Orwell focuses on the isolation which the elephant feels in his death, an isolation similar to his own: ‘ He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further.’ (40) As if to emphasise the futility and powerlessness which Orwell feels, he describes shooting the elephant many times, although this effect on easing its suffering. Rather, the elephant is left to die without any comfort. The essay then ends with a description of the indifference which the British feel towards the local population. The only reason giving for fact that elephant should not have been shot, is that ‘it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.’ (41) Orwell once again retreats into his isolated world by admitting that he wandered if any of the others had grasped that he shot the elephant merely to avoid ‘looking a fool.’ (41)
In conclusion, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ presents a vivid description of life in the British Empire. The essay works by focusing on the contradiction between objective opinions and one’s subjective weaknesses and prejudices. In this way it show Orwell as both a victim of circumstances and as willing participant in their perpetuation.
- Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” in Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays. London: Penguin, 2003. 31-41.