Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” both receives high regards for its political stance against imperialism and a healthy amount of criticism regarding his misrepresentation of the Burmese natives. However, “Shooting an Elephant” is not post-colonial in the sense that it is a perfect stand against ethnocentrism, as surely many examples of the narrator’s ethnocentric behavior have and could be extracted. It does, however, speak to the audience about a conflicted, insightful experience which exposed “the real motives for which despotic governments act” (Orwell 736). Through the officer’s (Orwell’s narrator’s) experience shooting a frenzied elephant, he understands that at the root of his job and the British Empire at large is the obsessive creation of power, or the illusion of power, that works to establish the domination of colonized areas.
The narrator in this essay, who may or may not be young Orwell himself, claims repeatedly to be anti-empire while also subscribing to an ethnocentric, discriminatory attitude towards the natives in Burma. He crudely refers to them as “evil-spirited little beasts” and claims he “thought the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts” (736). These remarks tell a lot about the narrator and make very clear that the narrator is not fully on the Indian’s side, despite his belief that the British Raj represented an “unbreakable tyranny”, which he makes apparent in the same thought as the former remarks. Paul Melia insists in his article “Imperial Orwell” that this text is, at best, “a half-hearted attack on the imperial project” and argues that the narrator’s description of the Burmese is lacking depth while also scapegoating the natives as villains who forced him to shoot the elephant when he did not want to (16). However, “Shooting an Elephant” has been claimed as a great, political story about dominance, imperialism, race, and culture (Yeasmin, et al. 27). Nellufar Yeasmin, Md. Abul Kalam Azad, and Jannatul Ferdoush stylistically analyze the story through the post-colonial lens, finding that ultimately Orwell was successful in using form to articulate his political and thematic points. Through the assumption that the narrator’s shooting of the elephant is parallel to Britain’s rule over the natives, it seems as though Orwell makes many choices to highlight his anti-imperialist stance. However, even in this analysis it becomes clear that the narrator “subconsciously associates the natives with the animals” (33). This is evident when the trampled coolie is described as a skinned rabbit (Orwell 737). What Yeasmin, Azad and Ferdoush offer to the scholarship of “Shooting an Elephant” is evidence that Orwell is well-intentioned even though his narrator may not be, a perhaps intentional move on Orwell’s part to compel the reader to look elsewhere for meaning where the narrator only seems confused. Or Orwell simply missed the mark on creating a protagonist that accurately represents his anti-colonialist attitude. Regardless, there is more to the story that the narrator alone does not contribute.
Despite the narrator’s first person telling of this story, he is not the vessel through which this text embodies a post-colonial mindset or pushes for change. Instead, what James A. Tyner refers to as the “landscape” of the text does. Essentially, a landscape is a concept of human subjectivity, a matrix where “who we are” meets up with “where we are” in a given moment in time (Tyner 263). The narrator finds himself in a peculiar position when his inner turmoil is manifested physically into a situation that is out of his hands. As an officer of Moulmein, he is placed into a position of supposed power over the Burmese people, which troubles him greatly as it is. When the elephant shows up raving around the village, eventually killing a man, the narrator is then placed into an unfamiliar and unstable landscape. Tyner refers to this moment as “a temporary displacement” before asserting that: “The narrator’s moment of understanding, his transformation, occurs in the space of the Other, a setting in which the social situation of colonialism was reversed” (266). It seems, then, that meaning comes from the situation or “landscape” that Orwell’s narrator is in rather than the narrator himself, though it is translated through the narrator’s realization by the end of the essay.
Orwell begins “Shooting an Elephant” by asserting that the story is what made him see “the real motives for which despotic governments act”. The narrator in the story does not come to realize the horrors of imperialism by the end of the story, he was already riddled with guilt from his own position in the tyranny: “In a job like that you see the dirty work of the Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who have been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt” (736). After witnessing the abuse of human beings during his time of service, it would be naïve to believe that the (admittedly disturbing) death of an elephant would bring him to a new realization about the brutal nature of the empire. Instead the narrator realizes that in this moment he is powerless despite being “seemingly the leading actor of the piece” (738). The landscape, or literary situation, of the story bring the first-person speaking narrator to the realization of his lack of power by isolating him among the Indians, who gather into a crowd in excitement for him to shoot the elephant. Up to this point, the narrator makes small moves to maintain the look of power. When learning of the elephant’s frenzy, he grabs a .44 that he knows is not strong enough to kill the elephant. Therefore, it is safe to assume he is grabbing it for the appearance of having things under control, of maintaining power. Later, the narrator claims “a white man musn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives’ and so, in general, he isn’t frightened” (739). Again, this perpetuates the attitude that he must stay in control, even though at that point he has already admitted he felt like a “puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind” (738). This conflict occurring in the narrator ultimately leads to his realization of the government’s “real motives”, but is only fully realized as he actually decides to shoot the elephant and in moments afterward.
The reader comes to understand that an impossible choice is being made, one in which both options are equally unprincipled. This lack of choice, in turn, makes Orwell’s narrator feel powerless. He understands that not shooting the elephant would have made him look like a fool in front of the Indians, thus agitating the power relationship between them; it would make his power meaningless if he did not shoot. However, his sense of power is threatened still by the decision to shoot the elephant, as his free will seems stripped from him. He is not powerful enough to withstand the judgement of the natives. Barry Hindess describes this as Orwell “regretfully acknowledging, at least for that moment, the unpleasant demands of the [white man’s] burden” (369), which could be interpreted as self-reflection on Orwell’s part, or undeserving sympathy for imperialists oppressing the Other. Regardless, this moment is the climax of the story, to which the early assertation of discovering the empire’s “real motives” has referred to. In this moment in the essay, Orwell’s narrator is struck by his lack of power in his decision to shoot and even to commit to elephant’s death fully, as he misses the brain and dooms the elephant to a long and painful death. Orwell also cleverly uses the symbolism of the elephants slow death to drive home the lack of power the narrator has realized, when suddenly the mad beast that must be shot is “powerless to move and yet powerless to die” (740). Ultimately, the post-colonialist theme being pulled from the story is the fact that the power one nation asserts over the other is an illusion, and thus is the “real” motivation behind the actions of the oppressors – to attain and maintain this illusion of control.
Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” illustrates the flaws of domineering imperialists, particularly the fact that the power one nation has over another is an illusion and thus is significant to any modern reader. The Indians had power over the white officer, even as they looked to him for a decision to be made about the elephant, it is under that pressure that he collapses. Though written in the early 20th century, “Shooting an Elephant” has much to offer oppressed populations for its perspective on the power of the people over a tyrant leader (represented by Orwell’s narrator). The native Indians in Burma do not overthrow Orwell’s narrator or riot over the death of the elephant, but they are pleased as they take the meat for themselves as soon as the elephant is finally dead. However, the Indians do influence the behavior of the man supposedly in charge through presence alone. A modern American reader might be struck in 2020 in how relatable the conflict in “Shooting an Elephant” is as POC and allies protest and, in some cases, riot against the oppressive nature of the police as an institution. In this case, the police grab guns and riot gear even before needed, much as Orwell’s narrator grabs his .44 knowing its not enough to stop the “must” frenzy of the Elephant, and through this a modern reader may realize the “real motives” of our own despotic government, and decide to pay attention to literature after all.
Hindess, Barry. “Not at Home in the Empire.” Social Identities, vol. 7, no. 3, 2001, pp. 363-377.
Melia, Paul. “Imperial Orwell.” Atlantis, vol. 37, no. 2, 2015, pp. 11-25.
Orwell, George. “Shooting and Elephant.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature: The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Jahan Ramazani, Norton, 2018, 735-40.
Tyner, James A. “Lanscape and the Mask of Self in George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’.” Area, vol. 37, no. 3, 2005, pp. 260-267.
Yeasmin, Nellufar et al. “’Shooting an Elephant’: A Stylistic Analysis.” ASA University Review, vol. 7, no. 1, 2013, pp. 27- 36.