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Home » , » Discuss the significance of the elephant episode in the essay "Shooting an Elephant."
"One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had before of the real nature of imperialism - the real motives for which despotic governments act."


"Shooting an Elephant", one of Orwell's most celebrated and significance of the elephant episode essays, describes the execution of a tame. beast, which has run 'must' and Orwell's simultaneous realisation of "the hollowness, the futility of the white men's dominion in the East". The whole essay centres on an otherwise apparently trifle event of killing a tame elephant, but this 'tiny incident' threw a flood of light on the real nature of colonial government in the East - how it functioned, what it produced and how it destroyed the moral balance between the ruler and the ruled.
significance of the elephant episode

The incident described in the essay took place at Moulmein in lower Burma, where he was for a time sub-divisional police officer. The crux of the story is described in the middle of the essay. A tame elephant has escaped from its housekeeper and has run amok causing much damage and killing livestock. As a police officer, Orwell is requested to deal with the situation. On arriving at the locality in question he finds that the elephant has now calmed down and is browsing contentedly in a field. Since the animal now appears to be harmless and Innocuous, he realises that although he is armed with a rifle it would be wrong to shoot it. The elephant has now clearly recovered form its attack of madness and appears to be as harmless as a cow. However, a large crowd of Burmese has gathered round, confidently expecting the beast to be shot. At this moment he senses that whether he wishes it or not he will have to do what the crowd expects to him; failure to do so would result in intolerable humiliation. The story thus becomes a powerful parable of the emptiness of imperial domination. Much against his will, for he feels that it would be a 'murder' to kill a tame elephant, which again has much economic value to its possessor, he proceeds to shoot the elephant. The animal takes a long time to die even though he has aimed at the brain and heart. It's tortured gasping in its death agonies become intolerable and at last the narrator can stand it no longer. He leaves the scene abandoning the elephant to the natives who will strip the body for the meat and tusks.

Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" is an autobiographical essay and it is commonly acknowledged as a critique of colonialism. In "Shooting an Elephant" Orwell combines his unwillingness to shoot the elephant and his realisation that "every white man's life in the East was one struggle not to be laughed at," with an epitome of the position of those who ruled the Raj. Thus the master becomes the servant as fearing he might be laughed at, he feels constrained to shoot the elephant. The narrator leams the great truths about the nature of imperialism when he, with a rifle in his hand and a great crowd of yellow native faces at his heels and with a clear sense of what is expected of him, is pondering seriously about his next step. He is awakened to the very nature of imperialism and he says-- "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 turms tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalised figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives" and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him." It is at that moment that the narrator learns that any white man belonging to the imperialistic machinery dons a 'mask' and he starts acting conforming to the norms of the mask that he almost involuntarily and unconsciously wears. He generalises the common situation of all white men in the East by saying that "And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at."

Orwell eventually gives in to the psychological pressure created by the circumstances, He decides to act like a 'sahib' for it is not befitting for a 'sahib' to come all this way with a rifle in hand and then retreat without doing anything. He feels that because of his position in the East that he is virtually left with one option, that of killing the elephant even against his better judgement and will. The narrator describes his position -"There was only one altemative. I shoved the cartridge into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim." 

 The account of the great beast's slow, agonising end, protracted over a half hour, is much more than belletrist description. At the last shot. the elephant "looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old"..... "An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him"........ "One could have imagined him a thousand years old," this is wonderfully sensitive but also a perfect anticipation of the last throes of the Raj itself. The elephant's eventual collapse is like a natural disaster, as earthquake: "down he came, his belly toward me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay." By the aftermoon the Burmans had stripped the elephant's body

almost of the bones, a forecast of the future for many of the former European colonies. The essays final sentence is perfect as Orwell writes: "I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking fool." The Old Orwell, now being no longer under the pressure, blatantly admits the fact that he killed the animal, which had much economic value and which appeared to him as gentle as a cow, not that it might turn destructive, but solely to avoid being laughed at. His confession at the fag end of the essay is painfully honest. 

All of Orwell's writings pose social and political questions of his time, most of them quite direct. In the essay "Shooting an Elephant" questions are raised about the outcome of imperialism. Orwell is overtly against colonialism in the essay. In this essay George Orwell describes the shooting of an elephant in a realistic and graphic detail. The local Burmese were very glad at the shooting of the elephant. They took it as a bit of fun. They hailed it as a brave act on the part of the sahib. Such type of real and graphic picture is hardly seen in literature. George Orwell has given us a vivid expression of his attitude towards imperialism from his own experience in the renowned essay "Shooting an Elephant".

 In "Shooting an Elephant" the author's intention is quite evident. He wants his audience to feel that imperialism is an evil thing not for the oppressed only but for the rulers too. Orwell's rendering of a magnified magnitude to a trifle event of shooting an elephant, which allegedly went 'must', is superbly brilliant and deserves our praise and appreciation.




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