Shooting an Elephant is a non-fiction essay by George Orwell recounting a British policeman's experience in India. Asked to shoot and kill a rampaging elephant, the officer agonizes over the hapless and abused animal's painful death at his hands. Stricken by the experience, the officer contemplates the nature of British colonialism and the damage inflicted by colonists on their own moral strength. In the end he is sickened and disheartened, his faith in Britain broken.
An anti-imperialist writer, Orwell promotes the idea that, through imperialism, both conqueror and conquered are destroyed. Orwell clearly states his displeasure with colonial Britain: "I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing... I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British." The narrator perceives that the conqueror is not in control, but it is rather the will of the people that governs his actions. As ruler, he notes that it is his duty to appear resolute, with his word being final.
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing— no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
Although it is not the narrator's wish to shoot the elephant, and even though he holds a weapon far beyond the technological capabilities of the natives, his will is not his own and, due to their expectation, he realises that he must shoot the elephant; "I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind." Reflectively, the narrator realises that being forced to impose strict laws and to shoot the elephant—he states his feelings against the act, but submits after comprehending he "had got to shoot the elephant"—illustrates an inherent problem of hegemony: "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." By enforcing the strict British rule, he is forfeiting his freedomwhile concurrently oppressing the Burmese.
The narrator's situation throughout the essay is one of little prospect or prominence. He comments on how, even though he is of the ruling class, he finds himself either largely ignored by the Burmese people or hated. He remarks in the first sentence, "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." Only with the expectation of a killing do the locals find him "momentarily worth watching." He describes how, as a police officer, he was often a target for mockery from the locals, as was any European who provided an easy target.
In contrast to his description of the natives as "little beasts", the narrator labels the elephant as a "great beast", suggesting he holds it in higher esteem than the locals. This is somewhat paradoxical, however, as the narrator's own job is demeaning and forces him to see "the dirty work of the Empire at close quarters". The narrator singles out "Buddhist priests"—persons synonymous with peace and goodwill—to be "the worst of all" and comments on how he would gladly "drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts". Despite this apparent dislike, the narrator betrays his roots, declaring that he is "all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors".
Having killed the elephant, the narrator considers how he was glad it killed the "coolie" as that gave him full legal backing. The essay finishes with him wondering if they will even understand his motive for having killed the elephant as he merely wished to salvage his pride.
The narrator's conscience plagues him greatly as he finds himself trapped between the "hatred of the empire [he] served" and his "rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make [his] job impossible." He claims that he is "all for the Burmese and all against the British" and goes on to say that "feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty." This creates a sense of empathy from the imperialists for the natives, but as they treat their conquerors badly, they start to feel less guilty and so treat them badly once more.