Shooting an Elephant

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Principles Theme Analysis

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Orwell’s service in the British Empire places his reasoned principles and his basic intuitions in constant conflict. He recognizes that the empire is tyrannical and abusive, yet he is unable to overcome his visceral contempt for the local villagers who mistreat him. The decisions Orwell makes when confronted with the rogue elephant encapsulate these tensions between his different principles. Orwell could have followed his more humane, ethical impulses and chosen to spare the elephant. However, in the same way that his resentment of the villagers compromises his principled objection to the British Raj, Orwell ends up compromising his humane impulses and killing the elephant because he fears humiliation. His motivation to do so is nothing more than his visceral (and racist) conviction that it would be improper for him to back down in front of the Burmese.

At the end of the story, Orwell describes the debate surrounding his choice to kill the elephant. The arguments his colleagues offer for and against the act are largely legal, but this legal justification is clearly a secondary concern for Orwell. It is only a fortunate coincidence that his actions were legally justified. Ethical principles did not factor heavily in his decision-making process: his real motivation was simply to “avoid looking a fool.”

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Principles Quotes in Shooting an Elephant

Below you will find the important quotes in Shooting an Elephant related to the theme of Principles.
“Shooting an Elephant” Quotes

With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator, George Orwell, is a British police officer stationed in the British colony of Burma. Though he is employed by the British Empire, he feels disdain regarding the nature of colonialism and the brutality that it imposes upon the colonized people. However, as a policeman imposing the rules of the colonizing empire, he is consistently taunted by the Burmese people who resent the oppressive British rule.

In this quote the narrator reveals his conflicting feelings regarding colonialism: he is morally opposed to the underlying tenants of the British Empire, but holds the colonized people he feels sympathy for in contempt due to the rudeness with which they treat him, as an agent of the Empire. The narrator posits that any such agent working for the British Empire holds these complicated feelings for the colonizer and the colonized. Though British officers in colonized areas must enforce the rules of the Empire, which are oppressive and brutal, they cannot help feeling resentment and humiliation in response to the oppressed people's hatred. 


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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 turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized 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. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Elephant
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

As he walks through the town, wondering whether the story of the rampaging elephant is true or not, the narrator comes across a coolie, or laborer, who has been trampled to death by the elephant. Realizing that the elephant, and its danger, is very much real, Orwell commands a subordinate to fetch him a rifle that is strong enough to kill the beast should it act violently towards him. However, when the townspeople see the gun, they are very excited at the prospect of seeing the elephant killed, as both a spectacle and as a chance for free meat. A crowd of what Orwell gathers to be about 2,000 people follow him to the rice paddies where the elephant is, eager for the excitement of shooting an elephant.

In this quote, Orwell feels at once powerful and powerless. In his hands lies a tool that can kill a beast that has killed a man with one step of its powerful legs. Though when he asked for the gun he did not plan to pull the trigger unless provoked, the expectation of the Burmese townspeople makes him anxious to the point that he now knows he has no choice but to kill the elephant. Despite being an agent of the colonizer (Great Britain), Orwell finds himself being controlled by the people he is supposedly controlling. It is here that Orwell finds the fallacy in colonialism: in attempting to oppress and restrain people deemed "barbarians," the oppressor himself ends up committing barbaric acts of violence—sometimes even against his will. 

It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Elephant
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

After the elephant falls to the ground, it continues to breathe laboriously, but it still does not die. Orwell uses his handgun at close range and fires shot after shot into the elephant, but it does not seem to notice the extra bullets. 

In this quote, Orwell takes note of the horror he feels at the sight of the breathing, bloody beast that is mortally wounded but cannot die to end its pain. Orwell realizes then that he has begun something--the death of the elephant--that he cannot seem to finish, but rather must wait for nature, cruelly, to take her course. Orwell feels awfully both for what he has done to the elephant without being specifically provoked, and for looking foolish in front of the expectant crowd for not knowing the correct way to swiftly end the life of the beast. Like with colonialism, the British colonial rule continued to oppress the Burmese people in inhumane ways, without understanding the repercussions of their actions. Instead, they continued to impose violent rule, without ever receiving the submission they hoped for from a people who refused to be silenced by a far-away king. Like Orwell, the British empire began a bloody and violent process that refused to die. 

And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

By the afternoon of the elephant's death, the Burmese townspeople have stripped its body of meat. Though the owner of the elephant was very angry that it had been killed, Orwell did not face any repercussions for killing the elephant due to his position of superiority as a British officer.

In this quote, he notes that in retrospect, he was actually happy that the coolie was killed, since he could claim that he killed the elephant in self-defense. Tragically, and ironically, it was due to the death of the coolie that Orwell felt forced to summon the elephant-killing rifle in the first place. He states that his colonist colleagues, like the elephant's owner, did not approve of his choice to kill the elephant; however, their reasoning was that the life of the Burmese coolie it killed was worth less than the value of the elephant. This devaluation of a human life, like Orwell's value of pride over the life of the elephant, is representative of the "barbaric" choices that colonists make in order to preserve propriety and equanimity in an attempt to oppress (supposedly barbaric) colonized peoples. In the colonial hierarchy of morals and values, image and prestige for the Empire comes before the basic human rights (and animal rights) of the colonized society.