“Shooting an Elephant” is a narrative essay by George Orwell about a conflicted period of Orwell’s life while he works as a police officer for the British Empire in colonial Burma. He despises the British Empire, and its presence in Burma, as do the Burmese people. The Burmese people also naturally despise and ridicule Orwell, for, as policeman, he is the face of the Empire. Out of fear of humiliation, Orwell feels compelled to uphold an authoritative front. Orwell discusses this complex inner conflict and illustrates it through a story of killing an elephant.
The memoir centers on an incident in which Orwell takes it upon himself to control an angry elephant that has gone on a rampage through a bazaar. He has no desire to shoot the elephant, but believing he needs to appear in control in front of the Burmese people, he brings his rifle to the scene. Finding the elephant peacefully grazing, his inclination to kill it is even less; but a large crowd forms and he doesn’t want to reveal his softness or hesitation as it will give the crowd reason to laugh at him, and ultimately to see through his front of authority. He feels compelled to uphold this front, and as he contemplates the best way to kill the elephant without making a fool of himself, he analyzes his fear of being humiliated and how that is the essential fear of the Empire itself and of the white man in British Raj.
Killing the elephant turns out not to be easy at all. It takes multiple bullets to bring the giant animal down, and when it does finally collapse, it stays alive, bleeding, yet breathing. Orwell describes the scene in clear, unaffected prose, and he ultimately reveals his inability to do the decent thing and put elephant out of its misery. The crowd is thoroughly pleased by the entire scene. They’re also happy to come get the meat from the dying animal. In this way Orwell wins them over. But he walks away from the suffering elephant, leaving it to bleed to death and feeling shame.
The essay is at once an allegory and a personal memoir. It symbolizes the brutal attempt of the British colonizers to control a people; it also tells the story of a personal dilemma manifesting and playing out in a dramatic, violent scene.