George Orwell works as the sub-divisional police officer of Moulmein, a town in the British colony of Burma. Because he is, like the rest of the English, a military occupier, he is hated by much of the village. Though the Burmese never stage a full revolt, they express their disgust by harassing Europeans at every opportunity. Burmese trip Orwell during soccer games and hurl insults at him as he walks down the street. The young Buddhist priests torment him the most.
From the outset, Orwell establishes that the power dynamics in colonial Burma are far from black-and-white. While he holds symbolic authority and military supremacy, Orwell is still powerless to stop the jibes and abuse he receives from oppressed Burmese.
The abuse he suffers from Burmese confuses Orwell, because he is “theoretically—and secretly” on their side, and opposed to the oppressive British empire he serves. His work handling wretched prisoners gives him a close-up view of “the dirty work of Europe” and makes him feel guilty for his role in colonialism. He has yet to understand that the British empire is waning, and will soon be replaced with even worse regimes. However, while Orwell considers the empire an unconscionable tyranny, he still hates the insolent Burmese who torment him. This conflicted mindset is typical of officers in the British Raj, he explains.
Colonialism leads to contradictory thinking and pits different sets of Orwell’s principles against one another. His morality staunchly opposes the abuses that result from empire and his own role in that empire, but he is unable to overcome his visceral urge to avenge the indignities he suffers at the hands of the Burmese. His knee-jerk resentment at being humiliated—coupled with an implied sense that those humiliating him should see him as powerful and their better—seems to be as powerful as his higher-order ethics.
One day, a minor incident takes places that gives Orwell insight into the true nature of imperialism and the reasons behind it. He receives a call from another policeman, informing him that a rogue elephant has been causing damage in the town. Orwell heads toward the affected area. On the way, locals explain that the elephant is not wild, but rather a domesticated one that has had an attack of “must.” “Must” occurs when tame elephants, held in chains, break their restraints and go berserk. The Burmese have been unable to restrain the elephant. Its “mahout,” or handler, pursued it in the wrong direction and is now twelve hours away. On its rampage, the elephant has destroyed public and private property and killed livestock.
Orwell is able to better understand imperialism through his run-in with the elephant because the elephant serves as a symbol of colonialism. For example, much like the Burmese who have been colonized and who abuse Orwell, the elephant has been provoked to destructive behavior by being oppressed. While its destructive behavior, and the Burmese’ more subtle rebelliousness may not be unequivocally good things, they are made understandable given the oppressive conditions both the elephant and the Burmese have had to endure.
Orwell goes to the neighborhood where the elephant was last spotted, which is one of the town’s poorer districts. He tries to figure out the state of affairs, but, as is common in his experience of Asia, he finds that the story makes less and less sense the more he learns about it. The neighborhood’s inhabitants give such conflicting reports that Orwell nearly concludes that the whole story was a hoax. Suddenly, he hears a commotion nearby and rounds a corner to find a “coolie”—a laborer—lying dead in the mud, crushed and skinned alive by the rogue elephant. The mutilated corpse appears to have been in excruciating pain. Orwell orders a subordinate to bring him a gun strong enough to shoot an elephant.
In the same way that Orwell does not understand precisely how he fits into the power dynamics of colonial Burma, he also has trouble finding a clear-cut narrative of the elephant’s rampage. Evidently, colonialism and the power dynamics it entails are too convoluted to be contained within a single straightforward point of view.
Orwell’s subordinate returns with the gun, and locals reveal that the elephant is in a nearby rice paddy. Orwell walks to the field, and a large group from the neighborhood follows him. The townspeople, who were previously uninterested in the destructive elephant, have seen the gun and are excited to see the beast shot. Orwell feels uncomfortable—he had not planned to shoot the elephant, and requested the rifle only for self-defense.
Once again, the Burmese appear to wield power over Orwell, subverting the colonial hierarchy. He is no longer an authority figure, but rather a spectacle, and the force of the Burmese’ anticipation is beginning to make Orwell feel like he cannot completely control how he handles this matter.
The crowd reaches the rice paddies, and Orwell spots the elephant standing next to the road. The animal is calmly eating grass. Killing an elephant is akin to destroying “a huge and costly piece of machinery,” and after seeing the peaceful creature, Orwell understands that he should not shoot it. Orwell suspects that the animal’s attack of “must” will soon be over. He makes up his mind to simply watch the elephant to make sure it does not become aggressive again, and does not plan on harming it.
Just as he empathizes with the oppressed Burmese, Orwell recognizes that the elephant is a peaceful creature that has been driven to rebellion by its mistreatment. Because it is both a harmless animal and a valuable piece of property, it is clear that there is no ethical or practical reason to hurt the elephant. Note that for the British all of Burma was essentially a valuable piece of property—another metaphorical link between the elephant and colonialism.
However, after he makes this decision, Orwell glances back at the crowd behind him. It has swelled to over two thousand people, all of whom are excitedly expecting to see the elephant’s demise. Orwell feels as though he is a magician tasked with entertaining them, and realizes that he is now compelled to shoot the elephant.
Orwell reneges on his ethical and practical conclusions almost as quickly as he makes them. By being placed in front of a crowd, Orwell has been forced to take on a performative persona that makes him act counter to every reasonable impulse he has.
His inability to resist the crowd’s bloodlust makes Orwell realize that his authority over the locals is a hollow sort of power. Orwell, the imperialist, cannot do anything other than what the Burmese expect him to do. He is constrained by having to “impress” the empire’s subjects by embodying the “conventionalized figure” of Western authority. In this way, Orwell reflects, “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.” Orwell realizes that he committed to killing the elephant the moment he ordered that he be brought a rifle. He entertains the possibility of doing nothing and letting the elephant live, but concludes that this would make the crowd laugh at him. His entire mission as a colonialist, he says, is not to be laughed at—thus, sparing the elephant is not an option.
In this crucial moment of the story, Orwell articulates the paradox of colonialism. By limiting the freedom of others, the British have actually forced themselves to adopt a limited, exaggerated role in order to maintain their grip on authority—and thus limited their own freedoms far more sharply. He cannot tolerate mistreatment from the Burmese, even though he understands that he, as a colonist, is in the wrong. It is deeply ironic, and tragic, that Orwell is compelled to entrench himself further in barbarism, simply because he feels that propriety dictates that he do so. That is the paradox of colonialism—that colonial propriety comes to force the colonizer to act barbarously.
Still, Orwell does not want to kill the beast. It appears “grandmotherly” to him; killing it would be a form of murder. Moreover, killing an elephant is a waste of an expensive commodity. The locals tell Orwell that the elephant has kept to itself, but may charge if provoked. Orwell decides that the best way to handle the situation would be to approach the elephant to test its temperament and only harm the animal if it behaved aggressively. However, to do this would endanger Orwell, and worse still, he would look like an idiot if the elephant maimed him in front of the natives.
Orwell’s compassionate reasoning makes it seem as though his nobler impulses may yet prevail. Unfortunately, his desire not to be laughed at trumps his other motivations—in fact, he is more afraid of humiliation—and perhaps of the way that humiliation might impact the local's sense of him as an authority figure—than he is of physical harm! It is clear that the conventions of imperialism make Orwell feel compelled to perform a particular inhumane and irrational role. In spite of his reasoned introspection, he cannot resist the actions that the role forces him to make in order to display his power.
There is only one thing Orwell can do. He loads the gun, lies on the road, and takes aim at the elephant. The crowd sighs in anticipation. Orwell aims at the elephant’s head—too far forward to hit the brain, he thinks—and fires. The crowd roars in excitement, and the elephant appears suddenly weakened. After a bit of time, the elephant sinks to its knees and begins to drool. Orwell fires again, and the elephant does not fall—instead, it wobbles back onto its feet. A third shot downs the elephant. As it tumbles to the ground, however, it trumpets and appears to grow even larger, and its fall shakes the earth on which Orwell lies.
The description of the elephant’s physical distress is excruciating, and Orwell clearly intends to emphasize the barbarity of his decision and actions. It is particularly notable that the elephant appears to be at its most magnificent just as it falls. This illustrates that at the elephant’s moment of bodily defeat, it only becomes a more powerful symbol of the irrational savagery of colonialism.
The elephant lies on the ground, breathing laboriously. Orwell waits for it to die, but it continues to breathe. He fires at its heart, but the elephant hardly seems to notice the bullets. Orwell is distressed to see the elephant laboring to die, clearly in agonizing pain, so he fires his smaller-caliber rifle into its body countless times. These bullets do nothing; the elephant continues to breathe torturously. Orwell leaves the scene, unable to bear the elephant’s suffering any longer. He is later told that the elephant took a half hour to die. Shortly thereafter, the Burmese stripped the meat off its bones.
There is nothing humane about Orwell’s killing of the elephant. He does not even know enough about marksmanship—or elephants—to kill the elephant painlessly. In the same way, the British empire is inhumane not out of necessity, but rather out of reactionary ignorance regarding both the land it has colonized and the pernicious way that colonization acts on both the colonized and the colonizer. Meanwhile, the Burmese’ readiness to eat the elephant underscores the desperation of their situation, and the way in which colonial oppression has made them focus on survival rather than moral outrage at the elephant’s brutal death.
Orwell’s choice to kill the elephant was controversial. The elephant’s owner was angry, but, as an Indian, had no legal recourse. Older British agreed with Orwell’s choice, but younger colonists thought it was inappropriate to kill an elephant just because it killed a coolie, because they are of the opinion that elephants are more valuable than coolies. Orwell notes that he is lucky the elephant killed a man, because it gave his own actions legal justification. Finally, Orwell wonders if any of his comrades understood that he killed the elephant “solely to avoid looking a fool.”
The aftermath of Orwell’s killing of the elephant illustrates the way the colonial cycle perpetuates itself. Those harmed by the violence are either silenced—like the elephant—or lack recourse—like its owner. Others, from more detached perspectives, are able to rationalize barbaric actions with legal justifications founded in the racism that underpins colonization. The crucial point of Orwell’s final observation is that, while logic can be read into colonialism from a distance, the real motivation of its savagery is simply the triumph of irrational insecurity and role-playing over ethics or human compassion.