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.”
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.