Shooting the Elephant
In “Shooting the Elephant,” Orville affords the reader a disturbing glimpse of the moral and spiritual wreckage that imperialism leaves in its wake. Based on the author’s personal experiences as a member of the Imperial Police detachment in Burma during the 1920s, the story involves an episode in which the narrator faces a moral dilemma over whether or not to shoot an elephant. Though the animal has killed an Indian and done considerable property damage, he is calm and passive when the narrator comes upon him. However, to appease the Burmese who fully expect him to kill the elephant, the man decides to shoot the animal. Through his telling of this tale, Orwell demonstrates that those under the oppressive imperial “thumb” are not the only victims of a system without conscience –- those who represent the appetitive government and impose its will on others suffer spiritually as well.
Orwell was quite young and idealistic during his tenure in Burma, and this story reflects that. The narrator confides that even as he goes about his duties and fulfills his job responsibilities, he knows that imperialism is beneficial to neither the oppressor nor the oppressed. He is anxious to complete his tour of duty and return home, where he will not have to “see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.” The Burmese suffer greatly under British rule, as is perhaps most evident in this story in the narrator’s description of prison conditions. Anti-European sentiment is understandably strong among the Burmese citizenry. But the hostility they feel –- however righteous it may be –- is itself demoralizing and counterproductive. The British despots have rendered a poor country poorer, and the young police officer who tells the story in “Shooting an Elephant” feels “an intolerable sense of guilt” as a member of that oppressive group. However, the British youth is himself oppressed by the system. Not only is he the target of repeated scorn and derision from the Burmese whom he polices, he is further demoralized by his own negative reactions to that treatment. It must seem tremendously unjust to be jeered at and insulted when one’s heart is sympathetic to those offering the jeers and insults. Thus, the narrator experiences a confusing mixture of feelings –- “hatred of the Empire” and “rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who [try] to make my job impossible.” He seems reconciled to having to deal with these diametrically opposite emotions. “Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism,” he says.
More subtle indications of the mutual distrust between the British and the natives are seen when the police officer tries to learn more about the elephant’s activities and whereabouts. Though some Burmese offer information, their reports conflict.