In his 1936 essay “Shooting An Elephant,” George Orwell describes the experience of an Anglo-Indian officer, arguably Orwell himself, killing an escaped elephant in front of a tumultuous crowd in imperial Burma. On the face of it, it simply appears as a story of an English police officer’s quest to kill an elephant so that he doesn’t lose the respect of the natives. However, the essay ultimately demonstrates the narrator’s political views on the British imperialism of Burma, as well as his moral dilemma and confusion. He is torn between what he believes is the right thing to do (not killing the elephant) and what his job as a police officer compels him to do. He explains, “[a] white man mustn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives’…..he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things” (3).
Deep inside, he believes that “imperialism was an evil thing,” and he is “all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” (1). Despite the fact that he despises the Burmese or “the evil-spirited little beasts” for trying to make his job impossible, he knows well that they have a good reason for their anti-European attitude towards him and other Europeans in Burma. His job as a sahib in the East is an eye-opening one. It gives him the chance to “see the dirty work of the Empire at close quarters” (1). Later in the essay, the narrator reflects on a life-changing incident, that is shooting an elephant. In describing the incident, the narrator vividly expresses the trauma he has to go through during the transient, yet dramatic event. In doing so, Orwell employs a series of highly effective metaphors to convey the situational irony of the entire scene of killing which, in turn, unveil a satirical presentation of the British imperialism in Burma and presumably all the British colonies in the East. Through the horrific depiction of the narrator’s poignancy, Orwell successfully accentuates that imperialism not only has a destructive ramification on the oppressed nation, but also causes the oppressor, the nation that exercises such oppressive power to ultimately decay.
To further unveil the irony of the white man’s life in the Eastern colonies, Orwell utilizes a powerful narrative writing technique that is metaphors. The narrator tells us that at first he has no intention to shoot the elephant that looks “no more dangerous than a cow.” (2). Besides, he is considering the fact that the escaped “beast” has an owner who absolutely would not like to have the hundred-pound-worth elephant killed. However, when he looks back at the huge crowd of Burmese following him, he feels obligated to kill the elephant. In describing the tumultuous, massive crowd, Orwell limns the Burmese crowd as a “sea of yellow faces”, hungry for goings-on and excitement. The image of the steady rumble of a sea, moving with excitement, implies the hidden power behind the facade of the seemingly impuissant Burmese. This very power is the force that keeps pressuring the narrator to act against his better judgment and kill the elephant. At that moment, the narrator comes upon the realization that the undefeated “white man” is in fact is merely an “absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces…” (2). Though the narrator is the one who holds the gun and supposedly the strongest side, he experiences unprecedented hollowness and feel of defeat against the Burmese and their will. The white man’s life in the Eastern colonies has been reduced to nothing, but a “one long struggle not to be laughed at” (3). Through such compelling words, provocative metaphor and comical paradox, Orwell undoubtedly succeeds in bringing to light the disgusting life and hollow person a white man is forced to become in the course of his desperate never-ending attempt to impress the oppressed natives in the East and obey the oppressive Empire in the West.