"Shooting an Elephant" is an extremely powerful and enlightening short story is which lets its readers look at the absurdity of the colonial situation through the eyes of a young, idealistic and thinking individual. The speaker's perspective is not and cannot be objective, but, at the same time, his attempts to defend himself seem fair enough as he is recording both the impulses that prompted him to kill the elephant and the profound emotional effect it has had on him. The principle reason for the killing was the desire to preserve his social image and not be ridiculed based on the young man's heightened self-esteem, need for approval and desire to do the right thing which under the conditions of the growing tensions between the colonizers and the natives seems to be quite an understandable and valid reason, especially if the reader takes into consideration the speaker's young age, lack of experience and liberal worldview.
The key impulse for the killing comes from the young man's heightened self-esteem. During his service as a police officer, the speaker has only too often been subjected to derogative attitude. The numerous cases of being "baited" and the multiple insults hooted after him have lead the young man to experience profound disappointment and bitterness, and see the situation as "perplexing and upsetting" (Orwell). The feeling is intensified because the speaker feels sympathy towards the Burmese. He is horrified by and even ashamed of the workings of the colonial oppressive mechanism, including "the wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos" (Orwell). This is why the speaker feels that the attitude of the natives towards him is unfair and wants to prove them wrong, show them that he is worthy of their respect. At the same time, he is not only an individual human being, but also a representative of the whole system. He has seen its seamy side, and while this makes him realize that the attitude of the population is quite understandable, he also knows that keeping his self-esteem intact is a vital prerequisite for his further service to be more or less functional and successful. Being ridiculed this time would have affected his reputation among the Burmese and permanently damaged it. Moreover, while he is a representative of the Empire, this might have affected the other officials in the city making their lives much harder too. This is an inescapable trap in which the white colonizers have found themselves.
Another potent motive that forces the speaker to decide for the killing is the need for approval. The young man has lived long enough among the suppressed hatred and overt disapproval of the Burmese. He is tired of being hated. He understands that these reactions are not groundless, yet he does not and cannot justify them when directed at himself. In addition to being continuously ridiculed by the Burmese society, he feels extremely lonely and disconnected in his position of a thinking individual in the colonizers' millieu. When the speaker says, "I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East" (Orwell), it becomes obvious that he has no support and guidance. He feels that he is just another replaceable gear in the huge imperialistic mechanism. But he also feels useless and unimportant in his life as a whole as even hate is perceived by him as a kind of attention he seeks: "In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people - the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me" (Orwell). Killing the animal gives him a chance to fulfill the expectations of a very large number of people and feel important - if only once in his life.
Finally, the speaker's actions are predetermined by his desire to do the right thing. The speaker is a young man and has not had a lot of experience. But he is constantly searching for the adequate moral criteria that could help him stay at peace with himself. He is desperately trying to find the balance between the demands of the society he belongs to and his personal values. He realizes that there are practical reasons that should prevent him from killing the animal. But there are also considerations prompted by his desire to help the poor people and the shock caused by the death of a coolie. "The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it," (Orwell) says the speaker with sincere concern. He also feels deeply affected by the sight of the dead body described in much detail. This precise description is meant to show how ugly, abhorring and absurd the death is - irrespectively of the origin and the social rank of the dead. The speaker cannot but be impressed by it. He is not yet made indifferent by the wearing out, leveling effect of the imperialistic machinery. At the end of the short story, the speaker relates the attitudes of his compatriots to the accident. While the older generation with their old-fashioned 'white man burden' principles approves of the killing, the younger generation is critical due to some highly practical and snobbish reasons: "the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie" (Orwell). This places the young man in an opposition with this new cynic attitude declared by the younger generation and illustrates the truth of the speaker's foreshadowing conclusion: "I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it" (Orwell). In the context of the colonial tensions, the way the young man acted seems to be quite valid as it celebrates the unconditional value of a human life irrespective of the nationality and the social class.
All in all, if one takes into consideration all the motives that lead the speaker to kill the elephant and of which he himself is not fully aware, it will be easy to both understand and justify the speaker's desire to keep up the appearances and not to be ridiculed by the Burmese. At the same time, the unsettling aspect of the killing is that it has been primarily prompted not by the rational considerations, but rather by the mesmerizing impact the crowd has had upon the young man. This is a paradox that Orwell is bringing to light in his poignant and insightful short story: anyone in a position of power falls a victim to the illusion of being in control while becoming controlled by the position itself.
Orwell, George. Shooting an Elephant. ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79s/.
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"Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell: A Trap For the White Man. (2022, May 16). Retrieved from https://proessays.net/essays/shooting-an-elephant-by-george-orwell-a-trap-for-the-white-man
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