Tuesday 12 January 2016

Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell

"In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people --- the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me."

Orwell tells of his stint in Burma as a police officer under British colonial rule.  He was despised by the people as an agent of the perceived oppressors, but in spite of his job, his sympathies lay with the natives and he felt constant guilt because of his duties.

One day he received word that an elephant had stampeded a Burmese Indian to death and was rampaging through the local bazaar.  It was a tame elephant that had been chained when it had gone "must," (a periodic cycle experienced by a bull elephant when its hormones are elevated), but it had broken the chains and escaped.  Orwell took his rifle and a small gun, not at all sure what he could do to stop the invader.  Initially he had no intention of shooting the animal, but when he arrived at the scene, the locals were in high emotion with the anticipation of the killing of the elephant, and Orwell felt he had no other choice.

"And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East.  Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd ---- seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys ...."

Approaching the elephant, who was now calmly munching grass, he shot it a number of times, however, it merely groaned and sagged to its knees.  While Orwell knew that he'd fired the fatal shot, the animal took what seemed like forever to expire, and he finally left the scene, hearing later that it died a half an hour after his departure.  Relief flooded him that the elephant had killed a "coolie" because it gave him a pretext for the execution, and he was able to avoid admitting the real reason for his actions ...... that he didn't want to look like a fool.

African Bush Elephant
source Wikipedia

Orwell begins his essay by describing his feeling of helplessness at being part of the British imperialist movement, but ends up inverting it by describing the impotence he feels against the masses, the very people for which he harbours sympathy.  He is trapped between not only a political sytem, but a social one as well, and his powerlessness is very effective.  Once part of a collective, to a certain degree "self" must disappear.  Yet one must retain enough self to act as a human, instead of merely a machine taking orders or acting from impulse, without taking into account reason or morality.  In this case, Orwell is paralyzed and chooses to conform.

Deal Me In Challenge #2 


  1. I read this essay looooooog back...Orwell faced similar challenges with the identity and belief system through his tenure in the British Imperial Services....This conflicting self comes out very loudly in his first book Burmese Days...the "self" does take a back seat when part of a collective, that too a collective which while in minority is still the dominant group. I think I will re-read Burmese Days now!

    1. What stood out for me in this essay is that in spite of disagreeing with a system, instead of learning from his experiences and making a different choice, he allowed himself to be manipulated by another system. This doesn't speak well of humanity, if we continue to go around the same circle over and over again. However, Orwell was young at this time and obviously from this essay, he had learned something. I'm just not quite sure what I should take away from it.

      It's a curious dichotomy that while we are individuals, we still need each other.

  2. I've been avoiding this one - glad you reviewed it so at least I could know what it was about. Interesting, but too sad. I may read it one day, but no time soon.

    1. Yes, being an animal lover, it might be too much for you. But it really hits home with the brutality of man on more than one level. And it's pretty short. But I understand if you can't bring yourself to read it.