Wednesday Writers to Read: George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”

Taylor Brorby

Taylor Brorby is a contributing editor to Assay’s blog. He received his M.A. in Liberal Studies from Hamline University in 2013, and is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. Taylor’s work has appeared in Orion MagazineRock, Paper, ScissorsThe Englewood Review of Books, on Minnesota Public Radio, North Dakota Public Radio, numerous newspapers, Augsburg Fortress, On Second Thought, the Northern Plains Ethics JournalChelsea StationThe EcoTheo Review,Sleet MagazineHigh Country News, The Loft’s Writer’s Block, and is forthcoming from the anthology Kissing in the Chapel, Praying in the Frat House: Wrestling with Faith and College.

Orwell’s essay is mainly anecdote. However, right beneath the anecdote—and perhaps running in a stronger vein—are image and idea. Perhaps the most insightful part of the essay is the very last sentence. Until this point the reader has been with Orwell—answering the phone to hear about the elephant, having a crowd of two thousand following in his wake, shooting the elephant—and then, in the end, an admission by Orwell: “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.” The full weight of what Orwell has done comes flooding in—not for the safety of the village, not out duty due to his position, not to end a rampage of an elephant gone must; no, Orwell, ultimately brings the elephant down to avoid personal mockery. In this way Orwell highlights the perplexing and confounding element of the human condition, Why we do what we do in order to protect ourselves from others. And where Orwell ends his essay, the reader’s mind only begins to ponder his own actions.

The title of Orwell’s essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” immediately brings an image to mind—that of a person bringing down a large pachyderm. But what the unassuming reader does not know is that he is in store for one of the most taut, economic, and powerful essays ever written. Orwell’s essay begins simply enough—from the first line we know that we are with him “[i]n Moulmein, in Lower Burma.” And immediately we know the locals’ reaction to Orwell—they hated him. The first paragraph of Orwell’s essay recounts the mentality and actions of the occupied Burmese against the Europeans, such as spitting betel juice or tripping, to let the Europeans know that they are unwelcome. Orwell even comments that “[t]he young Buddhist priests were the worst of all…[that] none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on the street corners and jeer at Europeans.”

In his first paragraph Orwell comments on the tension that is both mentally felt by the oppressor (Orwell) and the Burmese: “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better.” The reader begins to have pity for Orwell and still does not know where the title, the Burmese, and Orwell will come together to complete “Shooting an Elephant.” But by the second paragraph, the essay becomes a conversation between Orwell and the reader. Orwell recounts men who have been flogged, men locked in stinking cages, and the ignorance of the British Empire losing its grip upon the Burmese. Orwell highlights his youth and ill education and expresses his “hatred of the empire [he] served and [his] rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make [his] job impossible.” At this point the reader just wants to buy Orwell a ticket out of Burma and return him to England.

Orwell suddenly pulls out of his self-loathing situation to describe an incident that turns his position as an officer into one of immediate importance. Orwell receives a call from a neighboring officer and the officer proceeds to tell Orwell that an elephant has gone “‘must.’”

It had already destroyed somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.

As Orwell is about to leave he hears a woman telling young children to flee. What comes next in Orwell’s description of a man trampled, killed, and skinned by an elephant is pure mastery in the command of the English language. Orwell retells what witnesses to the events recounted happening with the man in such a way that the reader feels rushed to make it to the end of the paragraph. And it is in this retelling of the death of the “Dravidian coolie” that Orwell comes to the conclusion that he must take arm and go see the elephant for himself.

Orwell includes the reader in his admittance of not wanting to shoot the elephant, and states that he was merely arming himself for self-defense; he even goes so far to say that, “[a]s soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot it.” At this point Orwell narrows his focus on mob mentality and closely examines not only his predicament, but the predicament that imperialism has put him in. “[T]wo thousand eyes were watching.” Orwell goes into detail about the loss of power over his own will to draw the reader more explicitly into the idea of groupthink:

They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected i of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. 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.

Orwell’s insight becomes sharp, acute, and heightened. He later remarks that, “I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys…To come all the way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

He paints a vivid scene of lying on the ground and taking aim at the elephant and shooting him multiple times. Orwell’s language stands out against the bloody massacre the reader experiences throughout the remainder of the essay—phrases such as “every line of [the elephant’s] body altered”; “stricken”; “paralyzed”; “desperate slowness”; “breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps”; “thick blood welled out of him like red velvet.” In very much the same way that Orwell was placed in Burma by the British government, Orwell place the reader alongside him when the deadly shots are fired; the reader, too, experiences Orwell’s pain when he finds out that it takes over four and a half hours for the elephant to die.

Perhaps that’s the point of “Shooting an Elephant”—to sock us in the gut, to bring us into the moment and glean our own meaning from Orwell’s predicament of killing an elephant. By reading “Shooting an Elephant,” we come to not only know better the intricacies of imperialism, but better understand the inner workings of our own minds.

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