Shooting An Elephant– The Imperial Dilemma

This is the second part of a series examining Orwell’s essay ‘Shooting An Elephant’. Find a link to the first part here: Shooting An Elephant– Background

George Orwell was deeply aggrieved by the local suffering despite being a victim of the anti-European sentiment that had entrenched itself in India and Burma due to nationalist movements. He goes on to describe his odious experiences on the football field. The spectators had gloated at the injustice meted out to him in the game. When an agile Burmese player deliberately tripped him and the local referee intentionally overlooked it, he felt abject exasperation. The narrator bears recall that naked display of hatred was the order of the day. He had great contempt for the ill-treatment of the natives although he felt like driving a bayonet into the bellies of the Buddhist monks for their collective jeering. Such compulsive contradiction of feelings, the narrator opines, was a common bane for every British official in the East.

The incident of shooting an elephant is depicted in considerable detail. He paints the necessary circumstance in which the colonizer has to negotiate against one’s own belief. The narrator had no intention of killing the beast. He knew the elephant was in a temporary state of “must” and had sent for the rifle only in case he needed it for self-defense. The situation had worsened only because the mahout, the sole person who could control the elephant, had taken a wrong direction in tracing the beast. The narrator, a police officer had laid out his objective, i.e, to keep the elephant from spreading further destruction until its mahout could calm it down.

Beside the road skirting the paddy fields, the elephant that was eating, looked no more dangerous than a meek cow. The narrator resolved to not shoot the elephant for he reckoned the rut was wearing off. Moreover, the elephant was an expensive specimen of natural wealth with immense utility. At this crucial juncture, the narrator turned back to find himself facing two thousand “yellow faces”, who were waiting behind him eagerly for the gory spectacle of killing. They expected his white-skinned authority to perform this heinous act, “…when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys”.

The colonial official in performing what is expected out of him by the natives, compromises his own free will. The narrator was at a loss. He was powerless and his own need to feel powerful drove him to path of killing the elephant. He had felt like “an absurd puppet pushed to and fro”. In front of the indigenous crowd his knees quivered for it looked like they wanted the meat. He partly feared the same fate as the Indian coolie if he got any closer to the hysterical beast, but more so, he dreaded the laughter which the natives would have at the expense of his cowardice (if he did not shoot it). Acting quickly, he shot the elephant–“A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things.

The elephant caught unawares by the bullet had to go through a drawn-out and painful death. Its meat was stripped to the bones and the natives scrambled for their portion in a crime, for which the sahib was to be held culpable. The owner was furious at the colossal loss but lost his voice to “cultural inferiority” when he realized that it was an Englishman, that too the police who had tamed his elephant forever. Even the narrator’s compatriots were in two minds. The older ones justified the killing but the younger peers insensitively saw the elephant to be relatively docile. After all, it had only killed an emaciated, worthless Indian coolie (crushed him under its feet).

This cruelty and violation of conscience came from their monetary valuation of the elephant; all at the cost of human life. The narrator used the Indian coolie’s fate to justify his action but only he knew that he had carried out the killing to salvage his fair-skinned pride. John Gross calls Orwell a son of British Raj as this essay throws light on the imperial dilemma, what Valerie Meyers identifies as a trope of “in order to kill the barbarians, you have to become one.” Orwell is better than his fellow men for he actually explores his own imperial dilemma. In retrospection, he is candid enough to expose the repugnant realities. Edward Thomas opines –

The five years of isolation in Burma must’ve been decisive to Orwell’s approach to writing…

Picture Courtesy-

Most Popular

To Top
Please check the Pop-up.