Theme of Responsibility in Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell

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Theme of Responsibility in Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell essay
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Powerful roles in society have difficult responsibilities, in which morals are called into question. The difficulty for authority is ultimately the choice of following one’s own agenda or playing into the bigger picture. In George Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant” he discusses his time as a sub-divisional police officer in Burma for the British Empire. One night an elephant breaks free from its chains and goes on a rampage leaving Orwell to decide what to do about the animal who has returned to a peaceful state. The decision to shoot the laboring elephant stems from his paranoia and insecurity as a reigning official in a foreign hostile environment. Orwell’s use of figurative language helps him dehumanize the native Burmese people, whilst becoming another cog in the imperial machine, despite having conflicting thoughts on the morality of shooting the elephant.

The environment Orwell has been placed in is not welcoming towards him or his peers as an invading authority, but he also has some preconceptions of his own, that distance himself from neutral ground with the natives. His position a sub-divisional police officer requires that he “rule over” the Burmese for the sake of the empire. He makes assumptions such as, “if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress” (Orwell, 1) making them seem as if they are uncivilized, and ultimately more trouble than they are worth. The keyword “probably” indicates he is not positive they would act out this way, but due to their resentment caused by the empire why would they not be disrespectful. Although he exaggerates his hatred for the “unbreakable tyranny” in Burma, and in his mind secretly sides with the Burmese, he calls them “evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make his job impossible” through constant insults (Orwell, 1). Orwell does not take accountability for his metaphors against the natives, because he understates these opinionated emotions as “normal by-products” of imperialism, and not conclusions he has come to for himself. This numb outlook downplays the effects of him being in Burma as an invader, and keeps the control of the empire afloat. He may see the physical effects of the empire control, but has no idea how much pain they are being put through. His ethnocentric view belittles the natives, so he is not inclined to feel remorse. It is easier for every invading force to have control over the native people when they are made out to be uncivilized creatures. This further separates those with authority and the oppressed from reaching a middle ground, due to the normality of mockery and tension.

The people of Burma who deride and taunt the European officials are the main source of Orwell’s paranoia, and insecurity as an officer. He claims he was “baited whenever it seemed safe to do so,” and implies they have nothing better to do (Orwell, 1). The constant jeers eventually lead him to imagine what a great joy it would be ripping the local pious men’s guts out. These thoughts of prejudice, whether initially formed before or after his instalment in Burma, breeds distrust. This distrust is evident in how the citizens communicate with Orwell as he is trying to track down the elephant that rampaged their town. His questioning “as usual, failed to get any definite information” and he had almost written off all accounts of the elephant completely (Orwell, 1). The locals seemed hardly bothered by a five-ton elephant compared to an official tasked with protecting them from said animal. This is because Orwell’s authority is not based on any truth to the Burmese people. They do not value him as much as a working animal. However, Orwell’s gun catches the attention of the Burmese people. This frightens him more than the elephant, because he knows they are watching attentively. This fear drives him to be what the British empire demands; a loyal soldier. The gun he carries with him for self-defense against the animal happens to be the only gun in town. Orwell is aware of the power he holds, but hesitates on what to do when he actually comes across the elephant, because a slight mistake can make him the laughing stock of the entire community. The Burmese people use his paranoia against him to shoot the elephant, so they can collect its meat and tusks. He feels the pressure the Burmese eyes have as they look for a sign of weakness. The power of the native is psychological compared to Orwell being a physical threat as a member of a large empire. He is simply just a number that can be replaced with something much crueler.

A physical reflection of the unnecessarily cruel usurpation of the Burmese people is the elephant going must, that is put down shortly after in a peaceable state. This elephant was not wild, but a working elephant that was in chains and broke free, much like a revolt from natives against a oppressor. The rampage was due to a temporary imbalance of hormones, and is completely natural for an elephant. Orwell feels the pressure from the Burmese crowd forming around him, and he acknowledges that “it is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant — it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery” used for empire benefit (Orwell, 2). Again this aligns with the Burmese people’s actions against empire officials, because the people are also responding naturally to the abuse from the British, who constantly treated them as lesser property. The elephant is dying too slowly so Orwell repeated fires shot after shot, but the animal does not die as he hopes, just as the Burmese cause strife for the British. Orwell admits that “it would be murder to shoot [the elephant],” due to the “preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have” (Orwell, 2) and ironically personifies the beast. He most likely sees it as something more human than the natives he is supervising, because there is no need for an ethnocentrism in that particular relationship. It is an animal who does what it is told much like Orwell himself. The natives pose more of a threat than an elephant rampage, because of social conflicts. The native people have the ability to object and retaliate for the sake of their culture. This is the philosophy of imperialism, and what causes Orwell to support the very thing he called evil. The shot fired at the personified elephant is a metaphor for the slow death of the Burmese culture and society under rule possibly foreshadowing the eventual loss of customs and traits of the native people. The death is also a tragedy and a show of power as an official. This dehumanization is the basis of his reasoning for his action throughout the essay.

The lack of empathy shown by Orwell and the British presence in Burma originate from imperialism ideology. He may hate the job he was given, but continues to have bigoted thoughts drilled in by the empires teachings that the Burmese need help to be civilized. This evident in his racist names and lack of connection with the locals. His political views snowball into what they are at the end of the essay, due to the hostility built up by the British empire. His moral dilemma of the elephant is the last straw of his empathetic self that he gives away. He no longer is a compassionate individual, and is a cog for the empire doing what he is told, to keep the people in check.


The words and thoughts he has do not define him, because they are ephemeral and even he stated he was uneducated about the situation. Actions however, do define character. Everyone has a choice when it comes to their actions, and his metaphorically represent the mindless servant he has become for the empires benefit. The British rule has no need of the native people, just the lands resources and so by dehumanizing the British are able to effectively mine the resources with control their soldiers. Fear and paranoia can drive a person to break their moral code, but where a soldier would feel guilt imperialism supports the patriotic action against other human beings. When it comes to it humans will almost always choose their own self-preservation over morals, and Orwell was no exception. He feared judgment, and the safety of the position he is in, despite how hard it is for him to cope with being the reason for the Burmese suffering. Responsibly walks hand in hand with authority, and the selfishness of self-preservation is what brings great leaders to break the very thing they stand for.

Theme of Responsibility in Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell essay

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Theme of Responsibility in Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell. (2020, Oct 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/theme-of-responsibility-in-shooting-an-elephant-by-george-orwell/

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