Purpose Of The Essay Shooting An Elephant

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definitions
2.1. Definition ‘Essay’
2.2. Definition “Short Story”

3. Plot Summary

4. Analysis
4.1. Arguments for the Essay
4.1.1. Parallels to Orwell’s Biography
4.1.2. Parallels between Orwell and the Narrator
4.2. The narrator’s conflict
4.3. The Symbol of the Elephant
4.4. Roll-Call

5. Arguments for the Short Story
5.1. Construction
5.1.1. Title, Beginning and Ending

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This paper deals with Orwell’s text ‘Shooting an Elephant’. I use the term text deliberately since my topic says “George Orwell: ‘Shooting an Elephant’ - Short Story or Essay on the Essence of Colonialism”. The question of genre has been debated for decades and there have been several quarrels about allocating it to a certain genre. Most experts, however, call the text an essay but there are also those who insist on the text belonging to the group of the short stories.

In my paper I will work out features of both genres and at the end of my study I will sum up the findings and draw a conclusion.

First, I will give a short definition of the terms ‘Short Story’ and ‘Essay’. This is to show the characteristics of the two genres that I will pick up again in the course of this paper. After a brief summary I will start the analysis of the text working out topics like parallels to Orwell’s life, the meaning of the elephant or the construction of the text. In the final part I will sum up my results and draw a conclusion.

2. Definitions

2.1. Definition ‘Essay’

To start with, I will define the term ‘Essay’ to show the characteristic features of that genre. An essay is non-fictional prose. It is always influenced by the author’s opinion and therefore subjective. The author reflects about the past, comments on the action or judges several topics. Thus, there are mostly parallels to the author’s own life.

The essayist aims to address the reader in a language anyone is able to understand easily. Moreover, there is no predefined pattern how to structure the text. The author is free to choose his individual style and topic, whereas the reader should be able to read the whole text in one stroke.

In the Anglo-Saxon area the term essay is used to describe all non-fictional literature1. Therefore, this paper will discuss the degree of personal reflection in this text[1].

An important hint concerning ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is the fact that the genre of the essay was connected with fictional genres in the course of the 20th century.

2.2. Definition “Short Story”

In contrast to the essay, the short story is fictional prose. It is characterised by its shortness and the unity of time, setting and plot. The course of the action is limited to some kind of extract, for example a special event, a scene or even just a moment. The events do not need to follow a logical and chronological order but can occur out of context. Mostly, there is an abrupt beginning with the story starting in medias res and an open ending. The ending is often also an abrupt one similar to the ending of an anecdote with the storyline coming to a solution in the form of a punch line. Further, ending, title and beginning often contain central information regarding the analysis of the text. Therefore, the ending, title and beginning of ‘Shooting an Elephant’ will be discussed in detail in the course of this paper.

The characters presented in a short story are limited to only few in most cases and usually symbolise stock characters.

Regarding the perspective of narration, there is only one usually; changes of the perspective are uncommon.

Furthermore, the words employed are the ones needed, redundant words are left out.

3. Plot Summary

The story of ‘Shooting an Elephant’ takes place in Moulmein, Burma, during the time of British Imperial Leadership in India. The narrator is a British police officer who notices a strong anti-European feeling among the natives. Although a representative of British power, the narrator sympathises with the oppressed natives and their country but is forced to act according to imperial aims. This conflict is revealed by the central event of the story.

When the narrator receives a call, he is commissioned to bring an eloped elephant under control. In order to defend himself in case of an attack, he takes a rifle, which makes the natives think that the elephant is going to be shot. Once the narrator arrives, he finds a peaceful animal which offers no danger. Therefore, he decides not to shoot, but there is the mass of natives behind him that demands the police officer shooting the elephant. After an inner struggle, the narrator finally gives in to the power of the natives’ demanding and shoots. It takes several shots for the animal to dye painfully. The officer cannot stand this scenery and leaves while the natives have already started tearing out pieces of meat. He concludes stating that shooting the elephant was necessary as a means of demonstrating power and ensure British dominion.

4. Analysis

4.1. Arguments for the Essay

4.1.1. Parallels to Orwell’s Biography

There are striking parallels between the story and Orwell’s own life that support the argument for ‘Shooting an Elephant’ being an essay. The most striking and obvious parallel is the fact that Orwell himself served as a police officer in Burma from 1922 to 1927. He was educated at Eton and then volunteered to serve in India. His father had also worked as a police officer in Moulmein which can be seen as another striking parallel between the writer’s family background and the setting of the story. Orwell definitely had a personal relation to Moulmein. His grandmother and his aunt Nora lived there and Orwell had come to visit them several times before his service for the Imperial Police started in 1922. Later, when Orwell served in Burma, he played football in the Moulmein Police Team. Regarding this fact, there is a reference in the text when he writes about “a nimble Burman tripping him on the football field” (Orwell 1). In this case, there is not only a personal relation to the place but also to personal interests and activities. He may even refer to his own experience as a British football player during his time in Burma.

While Moulmein is an obvious hint to a place Orwell knew, there is another hint to a place that had a remarkable impact on Orwell’s thinking. In the text he writes about the terrible circumstances Burmese prisoners have to bear. In September 1925, he went to Insein, the city with the second-largest jail in Burma. This visit obviously touched Orwell’s mind. He mentions

“the wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups [...]

the men who had been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me

with an intolerable sense of guilt” (Orwell 1)

in the text. This quote reveals the narrator as an Englishman who sympathises with the native population and who despises their brutal oppression.

His biographer writes about Orwell “Whatever he may subsequently have thought about the colonial administrators he was, with a few dramatic exceptions, charmed by the native population” (Taylor 67). His anti-imperialistic view becomes obvious once more when he makes the narrator state that “imperialism was an evil thing” (Orwell 1). This statement brought by a servant of the Empire evokes the question of integrity but Orwell himself, though anti-imperialistic in his thinking, never revealed this attitude towards political order to his colleagues. None of his companions would ever have thought him opponent to imperialistic convictions. In 1929, two years after he had returned home, Orwell wrote in a French newspaper, “if we are correct, it is true that the British are robbing and pilfering Burma quite shamefully” (Taylor 69). Thus, the statement of the narrator in ‘Shooting an Elephant’ can be regarded as a statement of Orwell himself.


[1] For both definitions I refer to the German definition of Lamping/Poppe. I translated the definition and put it in my own words as good as possible.

It is a narrative essay about the act of shooting an elephant in a place called Moulmein in Burma. The narrator, a fictional alter-self of Orwell is a police officer there. Despite the fact that he has a lot of sympathy for the native people at the heart of his hearts, he is poked by them simply because he is of a European origin.

When a mad elephant destroys things all around the place and the narrator is reported about its exploits, he goes out to kill it with his elephant rifle. This creates quite a breathtaking spectacle for the native people over there and even though he does not really kill the elephant, he has to kill it, in the end, simply because of the burden of expectation, set on him by the native onlookers.

The essay approaches the irony of power and shows how the victor is also subjected to the constructing gaze of the victim. The narrator is in a peculiar position in relation to the workings of colonial power and that his mastery also depends on the acknowledgement of it from the ruled is the ironic impetus for the supposedly heroic action. The heroic myth of colonial power has to be sustained and so it has to be displayed through the shooting of the elephant and it is here that the individual decisions of the man has to be sacrificed completely.

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