“SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT” BY GEORGE ORWELL
Eric A. Blair, better known by his pen name, George Orwell, is today
best known for his last two novels, the anti-totalitarian works
Animal Farm and 1984. He was also an accomplished and
experienced essayist, writing on topics as diverse as anti-Semitism in
England, Rudyard Kipling, Salvador Dali, and nationalism. Among his most
powerful essays is the 1931 autobiographical essay "Shooting an
Elephant," which Orwell based on his experience as a police officer in
This lesson is designed to help you read Orwell's
essay both as a work of literature and as a window into the historical
context about which it was written.
project covering two selections by George Orwell (1903-1950)
DO EITHER PROJECT
Use the following
links to research the historical aspect of this essay.
British Empire in India
The Price of Saving
states "As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that
I ought not to shoot him." Later he says "…I did not want to shoot the
elephant." Despite feeling that he ought not take this course of action,
and feeling that he wished not to take this course, he also feels
compelled to shoot the animal. In this activity students will be asked
to discuss the reasons why Orwell felt he had to kill the elephant.
FOLLOWING EXCERPT AND ANSWER THE QUESTIONS:
perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within,
say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he
charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to
leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going
to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was
soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant
charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad
under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of
my own skin, only the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment,
with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I
would have been if I had been alone…. The sole thought in my mind was
that if anything went wrong,
those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and
reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that
happened it was quite probably that some of them would laugh. That would
Orwell repeatedly states in the text that he does not want to shoot the
elephant. In addition, by the time that he has found the elephant, the
animal has become calm and has ceased to be an immediate danger. Despite
this, Orwell feels compelled to execute the creature. Why?
to validate your answer (British Empire in India, Burmese History).
Orwell makes it clear in this essay that he was not a particularly
talented rifleman. In the excerpt above he explains that by attempting
to shoot the elephant he was putting himself into grave danger. But it
is not a fear for his "own skin" which compels him to go through with
this course of action. Instead, it was a fear outside of "the ordinary
sense." What did Orwell fear? Did he show a lack of moral courage?
research to validate your answer (British Empire in India).
In colonial Burma a small number of British civil servants, officers and
military personnel were vastly outnumbered by their colonial subjects.
They were able to maintain control, in part, because they possessed
superior firepower- a point made clear when Orwell states that the
"Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against (the
elephant)." Yet, Orwell's description of the relationship between the
Burmese and Europeans indicates that the division of power was not
necessarily that simple. How did the Burmese resist their colonial
masters through non-violent means? Show examples from the text to
support your insight.
research to validate your insight and discussion (British Empire in
India, Burmese History).
Explain how you would feel and what you would do if you were in
Orwell's position. Include your insight between physical and moral
courage as it relates to Orwell’s handling of this situation.
QUESTION: Although “Shooting an Elephant” is an essay, it
includes many of the elements found in a short story. Review the essay
identifying such elements as setting, characters, plot,, point of view,
and theme. Then discuss why you think Orwell chose to convey his ideas
by narrating the tale of the shooting incident.
Use research to validate your analysis (Shooting an Elephant).
According to Orwell, “it is a serious matter to shoot a working
elephant—comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of
machinery.” Conduct Internet or library research on the work elephants
do today and have done in the past. Prepare a detailed analysis of your
Use Internet sources to validate your analysis. (Web page has
Using First Person or Third Person
Orwell was both
an accomplished and a prolific essayist whose work covered a large number of
topics. Many of his essays are written as third person commentaries or reviews,
such as his "Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels."
Orwell often chose to include himself in his essays, writing from a first person
perspective, such as that employed in one of his most famous essays, "Politics
and the English Language."
In these works
Orwell uses the first person perspective as a rhetorical strategy for supporting
his argument. For example, he opens his 1946 essay "Politics and the English
Language" with the following lines:
Most people who
bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad
way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything
about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language- so the argument runs-
must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle
against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism,…. Underneath this lies
the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an
instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
In the paragraph
which follows the above excerpt Orwell switches from the first person plural to
the first person singular. By the second paragraph, however, he has already
included his audience in his argument: “we cannot do anything; our civilization
is decadent.” If you disagree with these sentiments, then you are ready to
follow Orwell's argument over the following ten pages.
While he does not use the inclusive "we" in "Shooting an Elephant,"
Orwell's use of the first person perspective is a rhetorical strategy.
Discuss Orwell's decision to utilize the first person perspective rather than
the third person perspective.
QUESTION: How does seeing the incident through
both the eyes of Eric Blair, the young colonial police officer, and George
Orwell, the reflective essayist, support Orwell's argument?
Use research to validate answer (Web page sources, and Shooting an
How does the
story change by having the narrator not only present, but active, in the action
of the story?
Search Internet for additional analysis.
How does the use
of the first person perspective create a sense of sympathy or understanding for
Search Internet for additional detail or analysis.
section of "Shooting an Elephant" from a different perspective- such as
in the third person. What is gained by this shift in perspective? What is lost?
Use research source (Shooting an Elephant).