Insights on Imperialism and Ethical Conflicts in Orwell's Shooting an Elephant

Categories: Shooting An Elephant

George Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant," introduces an intriguing insight on imperialism, ethical disputes and fear of judgement through the inner functions of a European law enforcement officer provided the intense task of handling an elephant in musk within Moulmein, in lower Burma. Imperialism, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, reads that Imperialism is "a policy of extending a nation's power and influence through colonization, usage of military force, or other methods." Interestingly,

Orwell shows imperialism in his work as a consensual hatred between the Burmese and a specific European police officer causing a shared negativeness.

The ethical conflicts raised in this essay root from the narrator, (who we can presume is the European policeman) who has actually been handed the task of dealing with a lustful and aggressive elephant who was a hazard to the Burmese individuals's land, ownerships and lives. Ethical conflicts raised in Orwell's work, tie to the storytellers fear of judgement. It was because the storyteller feared judgement so terribly, that he made the choice to pull the trigger on the elephant.

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When an elephant in musk escapes from his chains with his Mahout far out of reach, the narrator is called in to deal with this ravaging creature. He beings along his rifle and says “I had no intention of shooting the elephant, I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary.” In essence, the pure reason for the rifle was for precautionary reasons, yet it had drawn a large amount of attention and excitement from a large crowd of “at least 2000 and

growing every minute.” (Page 284) The narrator has an ethical dilemma, as “[he] knew with perfect certainty that [he] ought not to shoot him” (page 284). Orwell compares the elephant to a valuable, expensive piece of machinery. (Page 284) He watches the elephant acting with that “grandmotherly air that elephants have,” (Page 285) realizing that the beast is calming down and coming out of his lustful phase. This later contrasts with the narrator actually shooting the elephant due to the pressure of “the sea of yellow faces and their 2000 wills pressing [him] forward.” (Page 284) As the narrator was enroute to locating this lustful elephant, he learns that it had already “destroyed a bamboo hut, killed a cow and raided some fruit stalls and devoured stock.” (Page 282) In learning these things, Orwell makes it clear that the narrator feels he has legal justification for shooting the elephant even though he morally knew he was in the wrong.

Interestingly, the narrators ethics in the matter of shooting the elephant are broken because of his fear of judgement. “[He] was hated by many people as a European subdivisional police officer in Moulmein. [He] was an obvious target and baited whenever it seemed safe to do so.” When the narrator was called in to deal with this elephant in must, he came to a point where he was surrounded by thousands of Burmese people, left with the choice to either shoot the elephant, or let him live. The pressure provided by the “thousands of yellow faces,” (page 284) and all of their hatred, left the narrator with no choice in his mind but to fire at this creature. After doing this, he wonders “whether any of the others (Burmese) grasped that [he] had shot the elephant solely to avoid looking like a fool.” (Page 287) This proves the narrators fear of judgement.

Orwell does an excellent job in displaying the hatred between the Burmese and the Europeans, and the feeling that “imperialism was an evil thing.” (Page 281) He says that “if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress.” (Page 281) Orwell uses symbolism to demonstrate the “evil” of imperialism.

The ravaging elephant that the narrator was called in to deal with is a symbol for imperialism and its evils. The actual shooting of the elephant unveils that imperialism not only inflicts damage on one side, but on both sides of the relationship. Europe, who is supposed to hold control over the Burmese peoples, lost their control due to the pressure provided by the Burmese people in the actual shooting of the elephant. The Officer is put into a large authority position, but the hate he received from the Burmese, as well as the emotional pressure they put on him to shoot the elephant, puts a sense of power on the Burmese, and less on the “greater” European colony.

Throughout this reading, Orwell demonstrates the evils of imperialism as well as the pressure that we as humans often have to succumb to based on societal pressures we face. He uses a story of a European police officer
working in Moulmein who is faced with the pressure of the local Burmese people to kill an elephant who is in must and has done some damage to people’s property.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Insights on Imperialism and Ethical Conflicts in Orwell's Shooting an Elephant. (2021, May 28). Retrieved from

Insights on Imperialism and Ethical Conflicts in Orwell's Shooting an Elephant essay
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