Review: “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell


How far would you go to avoid being laughed at? In George Orwell’s short story, “Shooting an Elephant,” the main character actually kills to avoid being made a fool. The story begins with a bit of irony. The main character is in another country where he, for the first time in his life, is “important enough” to be “hated by large numbers of people.” This character, a European police officer in Burma, hates his job and is secretly “all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.” Is it because of this that the officer so loathes being jeered at on a consistent basis? When the incident with the elephant begins, the officer tells us that it gave him insight as to “the real motives for which despotic governments act.” The officer says later, and his actions confirm, that he feels that people act simply to impress the “natives.”

Read the story, “Shooting an Elephant,” here. Because it is a short story, in order to fully discuss, spoilers are ahead!

Orwell gives us a great picture of the human need to be accepted, even by those that may be considered enemies. The officer is chasing down an elephant that is running amuck in the town. The elephant tramples and kills a man, and so the officer takes along a rifle for protection, but realizes that the Burmese people expect him to shoot the elephant when they see him with the gun. He is compelled to live up to their expectations. However, he “did not in the least want to shoot [the elephant].” Furthermore, he “ought not to shoot him” because it would be equivalent to “destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.” But an immense crowd was watching him. In order to impress them, he shoots the animal. He later admits that he “was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant.”

It is difficult to imagine being glad someone has died and to have to kill a large animal, all for the sake of not appearing to be a fool. Embarrassment is a powerful emotion and, as Orwell demonstrates here, is something to be avoided at nearly any cost. This short story gives the reader a vivid glimpse into the human psyche and shows just how self-serving humanity can be.

My rating: 3 out of 5 = liked it

Available in this collection of short stories.

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