George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant: a Summary and Reflection

George Orwell was “disgusted by the inhumanity of colonial rule that he witnessed while stationed in Burma” (2835 Orwell). Using his writing to confess the inner conflict of an imperial police officer, he wrote an autobiographical essay titled Shooting an Elephant. He notes that the Burmese civilians were not allowed to own guns during his stay – a testament of British control over Burmese resources. Feeling “stuck between his hatred of the empire he served and his rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make his job impossible” he knew that “the sooner he chucked up the job and got out of it the better” (2844 Orwell). Orwell repressed his emotions because acting out as the only white man would have been foolish. If he betrayed his country, he risked treason. If he sided with the Burmese, he would never fit into their culture. Every white man’s life long struggle in the East was to not be laughed at, so the safest choice for a man like George was to live without action. However, when a sexually aggressive elephant gets loose Orwell is called to take action.

Orwell responds to the call, taking his rifle, “an old 44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant” (2845 Orwell) in hopes of frightening it with the noise. This elephant was not wild, but normally tame and broke loose due to sexual desire. This first action is just an exercise of authority in maintaining order; however, in seeing a dead native victim he requests an elephant rifle and five cartridges. This is when the Burmese become quite excited and an “immense crowd of two thousand” (2846 Orwell) follow him. They believe that the imperial police officer is going to shoot the elephant when, in actuality, he just wanted to defend himself from becoming another devilish corpse.

This is where Orwell’s insecurities get the best of him. He is “pushed to and fro by the will of these yellow faces behind” (2846 Orwell). He knows, along with the Burmese, that his duty is to act as a British official in killing the elephant. He develops a strategy: he would “walk within twenty-five yards to test his behavior” (2847 Orwell). If they elephant came at him, he would shoot. If not, he would reveal that the tame elephant no longer posed a threat. Yet, his insecurities with a gun get the best of him and he discards a strategy that would have allowed him to remain neutral.

He shoots the elephant five times with the elephant gun, but it does not die. He calls for a normal rifle to finish the job, but it does not die. He leaves to avoid the dying, gasping elephant and later learns that it took another half hour for it to die. The Burmese get the meat that they wanted and Orwell learns that he is legally right for shooting the elephant. He is thankful for this because he often wondered “whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking like a fool” (2848 Orwell). This is how the colonizer became colonized.

I believe that George Orwell’s essay reflects what many of us go through today: the struggle to do what is morally right when an entire world sways us to conform. Orwell’s dilemma is no different than one that we might face with a job that goes against the very grain of our moral virtue. We face these challenges all of the time:

• A job offer presents to you over someone who is more qualified, experienced and has been working toward that same position for years. Is it right to take it over them?
• A co-worker is disciplined for an honest mistake, we want to stand up for them but fear that rocking the boat could jeopardize our own life-lines. Do we step away from the fire to keep ourselves from being scathed?
• We want to study literature and write, when everyone else advices us to go into education. Do we limit our passions in order to have a career?

The list goes on. Life gets harder. Some of us are born into situations that are not easy and we’re forced to navigate through the chaos and disorder. In result, we may make bad decisions. In my opinion, the life of an imperial policeman would have been quite difficult. I applaud Orwell for being brave enough to confess his inner dilemmas and questions about the situation he lived out. It reminds us that we all face these conflicts everyday. The great Ralph Waldo Emerson knew this to be true when declaring: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Works Cited

Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” The Longman Anthology: British Literature. Third ed. Vol. 2c. N.p.: Pearson Longman, 2006. 2844-848. Print. The Twentieth Century.

*Blogger’s note:  This was a brief reflection that I wrote and edited during college.  It is by no means a 100% exact interpretation of Orwell or any of his writing.  I am not an Orwell scholar nor do I claim to be.  If anyone is looking to build off of this post, then please cite this blog in your paper and write away.  Please feel free to share what you write with me and what you discover about Orwell.

31 comments
  1. Akemi said:

    This was great, and it helped alot; thanks.

    • Josiah Shepherd said:

      I completely agree with what the writer had to say about George Orwells essay. The situation that George Orwell had to face in the story can be compared to our daily lives today. We may be put in circumstances very similar to that of George Orwell. For example, if ones peers are peer pressuring one to do something they do not agree with or want to do at all the person being pressured may give in to the pressure because one does not want to be made fun of or scolded. This is how people may come to do things morally wrong and unjust.

    • Annie Spurgin said:

      I really enjoyed reading this i felt like it gave me a better understand of George Orwell. I also agree with it because I think our morality is being tested all the time from peers, family, etc. by what they do. This made the reflection very easy to relate to. When I read this I felt like I understood more of where the topic of dictatorship in 1984 came from. Since he had such a strong hatred toward the government when he was working for them.

  2. Andrea Goff said:

    After reading “Why I Write,” and this blog, I now have a clearer understanding of both the story and Orwell.

  3. Osto said:

    This blog is great. I just read this story today in class and saw this as a nice supplement to my comprehension. The story really does express every persons difficulty in life where they have to choose to do the right thing or “go with the flow” in a sense. Some times people say “times are hard”, when they feel forced to do something they don’t completely agree with just to boost their presitge, reputation, wealth, and network. Thanks for the post!

  4. Olivia C said:

    The way you ended this post was great. I liked the way you tied it into the struggles we face today. I completely agree with you when you applauded him for being brave enough to confess his inner delimmas. Today, when people are pressured into doing different things, they mainly keep it to themselves, and may feel alone in the world. Maybe Orwell wrote the essay to get some of his feelings off his mind, and to see if others have experienced similar things (maybe not as serious as shooting an elepant, but a similar kind pressure). If I had been in the position where 2000 people were pressuring me into shooting an elephant who had killed one of their own, I have no idea how I would have reacted, but probably in a similar way that Orwell did.

  5. Justin said:

    I completely agree with this reflection because things like this happen everyday. One may do something that they do not want to do because of peer pressure. These are challenges that we as humans face all the time. We may simply not want to do something when an entire world sways us to conform. How could one neglect others (let alone two-thousand) from doing what is told.
    Ralph Emerson’s quote “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” is great for this piece of literature. It really shows how authority and social statuses make life the way it is.

  6. Sharinna Tejada said:

    I agree with this reflection because in many ways, George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant Essay relates to real world issues each of us face each day as individuals and we get constantly get peer-pressured and somehow stuck in between what you feels right and what others would expect you to do. I also agree with the author of this blog that Orwell was “brave enough to confess his inner dilemmas and questions about the situatuin he lived out”. In terms of Orwell’s style and way of writing, I think that this was a very different piece from his novel 1984 and he did very well with it. He enriches the text with imagery and when I was reading Shooting an Elephant, I could picture everything going on- the elephant getting shot,the look in his eyes, the whole scene. I think that is my favorite part of George Orwell’s writing-his imagery.

  7. Omaira said:

    It is true that we face these challenges all the time, and most of the time we are selfish. Reading George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, i saw it from a different point of view, i wouldnt of had killed the elephant, it wasn’t causing any trouble. Being under pressure doesnt help at all, you cant think straight, its true. But the fact that the gun did take over his insecurities, and made him kill the poor creature because he didnt want to look like a “fool” infront of all those people. I agree with the reflection, but i think he did it for all the wrong reasons.

  8. Antonio Gonzalez said:

    This blog was super! George Orwell is very brave to write a story about his own personal life problems. He has showed the reader that they are not the only ones with dilemmas in their lives. There are many people that come across difficult times in their lives and one must over come them. That is what George Orwell did in this autobiography. There has been times in life where I have been in Orwell’s position and decided wether I choose to please someone or to do what’s best for me. I’m very satisfied that I could relate to this.

  9. Byron said:

    I agree with this reflection. Orwell was put in a difficult situation, and he made the best decision he could, given the circumstances. The examples stated were also good, like the one that said ” a co-worker is disciplined for an honest mistake, we want to stand up for them but fear that rocking the boat could jeoperdize our own life-lines. Do we step away from the fire to keep ourselves from being scathed?” This example goes hand in hand with how the main character had to decide whether or not to shoot the elephant. Either the elephant dies and he is sad, or he doesnt shoot the elephant and he becomes ridiculed. So either way he is sad.

  10. Melissa said:

    I agree with your view that Orwell”s Shooting an Elephant reflects a moral conflict that can relate to everyone being that we at some point or another have to make moral decisions. It can range from something minor like having to choose whether or not to pocket extra change to something major like being the first to speak up in an unjust situation. Orwell had to choose between letting the elephant live if he continues to exhibit non agressive behavior and risk being laughed at by the locals or killing the elephant to avoid looking like a fool to the locals who already hate him.

  11. Yara said:

    I agree with the connections you made with the real life situations and ‘Shooting An Elephant’ by George Orwell. I just finished reading it in my class and it makes a lot of sense the way you described it. I also feel like with the essay that George Orwell wrote called “Why I Write” plays a lot in this story he wrote about the elephant. He describes his struggles and reasons why hes a writter. Once my class read ‘Shooting An Elephant’, I felt I understood more of the reasons Orwell wrote his novel ’1984′. It makes sense on where he got his ideas of imperialism and dictatorship. He was part of the government and being in control in his real life, and he hated it.This post was really great and allowed me to understand the connections he wanted us to realize in our own life.

  12. Montha said:

    I also felt the same way about Orwell when he had confessed his doubts and worries concerning the shooting of the elephant- I thought it was good of him to admit these things. Orwell was being very realistic and relatable about his thoughts on killing the elephant. Most people would not want to shoot an innocent creature but at the same time would have to in order to avoid any type of humiliation from the onlooking crowd. Orwell was faced with the issue of having to choose between his morals and his reputation- both of which are two powerful aspects that many people today also have trouble choosing between. George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant is a very good representation of this common everday struggle that everyone faces in trying to stay true to themselves and yet being forced to comply with the world around themselves.

  13. Alexandre.T.O.A said:

    I agree that George Orwell was going through a moral dilemma in this story. He does not want to be in the position of power, but he needs the job for the money. He shoots the elephant in order to keep his job, as well as to save face. He abandoned his morals in order to keep in jood terms with the Indian people. I believe it was not an easy desition to make, but he was weak to give in.

  14. Alexandra said:

    I think you bring up some good points. I believe as humans, we have that one moment in our lives where we have to choose between right and wrong. We do choose to do what’s right or what’s wrong everyday, but there comes a time where it’s one of those decisions that has major repercussions. it’s also like a test. one can see if one truly does follow one’s moral virtue or if one has been fooling oneself all this time and that single decision proves that one’s moral virtue is a contradiction of one’s true self. it’s these moments that can show who we truly are.

  15. Linna said:

    I agree with your reflection on George Orwell’s Shooting and Elephant. Orwell’s essay does reflect on what people go through everyday: choosing between what is morally right and what others and society pursuade us into doing. This almost shows a natural sense of selfishness. Orwell shot the elephant even though the elephant had already calmed down. He did this to save his image as a European officer in Burma. If he did not have a crowd of “yellow faces” behind him, he probably would’ve left the elephant alone. Orwell was aware that the animal was going through must, which is a normal and natural thing. When Orwell spoke of his killing the elephant being a legally right thing to do, he brought it up in his defense of killing the animal; it was a way of allowing himself to feel less guilty for his actions. Anyone else would have done the same thing as Orwell if they were in his situation.

  16. Jesse said:

    I agree with the reflection because our morality is constantly being challenged by what everyone else does or thinks. Like George Orwell, people are constantly asking themselves whether they should do what they think is right or do something they are against in order to be accepted by others. And in the end the greatest fear is not about challenging your own morality, but it is about not being accepted by the people around you. I believe that their is a struggle to do what is morally right because people naturally want to be liked and accepted by others.

  17. Dajah Andrade said:

    I agree completely with this refelction. As people we never want to look stupid or feel foolish in any situation so basically we just do what we think is expected of us. Sometimes we feel as if the right thing to do is going to end up embarrassing ourselves. People worry too much about what other people think and that completely blinds us from doing what is morally right.

  18. Felix said:

    George Orwell created an amazing piece of literature that mostly everybody can relate to. In his story “shooting an elephant”, George is put in a position where opposing forces are leading him towards a decision. Peer pressure is presented to everybody in life. Many people let their actions get influenced, while a small percentage does not let themselves get peer pressured. It is a very sensitive situation that many people neglect. I admit it is easier to let yourself fall into peer pressure but in reality, being your own leader and standing up for your morals is a more positive thing to do in the long run.

  19. Sarah Celestin said:

    I completely agree with the author because we all face situations in life that make us reconsider our choices. George Orwell had to deal with a decision which could greatly affect his life. He was not greatly respected as a European officer in Burma and that did play a big role in his decision. He was to either to be a good person and let the elephant free or to kill it, which was what his fellow people were telling him to do. We all as humans go through things like this everyday. We are pressured by peer pressure which changes our decisions and makes us reconsider. Peer pressure does affect the human behavior because most of the time we want to be liked by others and for that to happen “we have to do what they tell us to do”.

  20. Bertha said:

    Whoa! This is very helpful opinion
    Thank you

  21. Jen said:

    Honestly, I still think I’m going to fail my exam tomorrow. Only time will tell.

  22. Pete Zahut said:

    What is the works cited page for this story?

    • Kyle said:

      Pete,

      I have added the “works cited” and anthology info. at the bottom of this post.

      -Kyle

  23. Thank you for this thoughtful application. I sometimes have a difficult time explaining to students why we continue to read Orwell when some of his misanthropy reads as racism. I think the questions that you pull of out his experience really make a lot of sense.
    I hope that you don’t mind, but I shared it with my students, giving you credit, of course.

    • Kyle said:

      Thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it and the fact that you’re sharing it with your students. I hope this post helps.

  24. magdaline udoto said:

    this is real a good job,it has helped me a lot

  25. Vinay said:

    this is a great help 4 my exam

  26. rabi said:

    thx a lot for that…Now i totally understand the whole story…u did a great job…can u plz send me ur email address so if i have any difficulties to understand any story i can email it to u? i know m asking about a big favor but i really like your writing style and the way you describe the whole store :)

  27. rabi said:

    1) how would you explain Orwell’s definition of imperialism?
    2) What role does his view of the natives of Burma play in this definition?
    can u plz explain me these two questions? my email address is rabia_life12399@yahoo.com

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