Orwell begins his essay by describing the intense hatred of the Burmese for their European masters. In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, 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. Europeans were spit at, jeered at, and insulted. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. I feel his sympathies were on the side of the Burmese, and against the British. The British represent the industrial west with its strict command structure and its empirical dominance.
The Burmese represent a powerless pre-industrial society ruled by a modern superpower looking beyond its own borders to expand its empire. Orwell uses the information he knows about how the British Empire mistreats the people of Burma and the way he is mistreated by the Burmese. In the essay he writes not just about his personal experience with the elephant but he compares the experience is to the British Imperialism and his views on the matter. When Orwell receives a telephone report of an elephant “ravaging the bazaar”.
He takes his rifle, intended only for defense, and rides on the horseback to the alleged whereabouts of the elephant. Once he gets there he meets the Burmese sub-inspector and they look at what the elephant has done. Actions that at this point don’t justify killing the elephant. But later when he rounded a hut he notice a dead “black Dravidian coolie”, lying in the mud of the street. It quickly becomes clear, that this could be the elephant’s doing and consequently Orwell orders an elephant rifle. On his way to the elephant, his precession of sightseers, excited at the possibility of seeing a dead elephant, grows.
Orwell still doesn’t want to shoot the elephant because, “I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant--it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery--and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided” When they arrived at the elephant’s residence they find him peacefully eating and looking harmless. But the crowd still wants to see the elephant shot. Orwell is conflicted, because he doesn’t want to kill the elephant, but if he does not kill him, the laughter about him will be louder than ever before.
This particular argument Orwell faces comes from within himself, his heart, but also from the facts. Shooting an Elephant gives us a taste of what it means to cross cultures at one’s own expense, declaring “l often wondered whether any of the others grasped that l had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” Orwell was stuck in the space between British Imperialism and Burmese culture admitting that “All l knew was that l was stuck between my hatred of the empire l served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible”.
What is more important to him is being laughed at forever or having the guilt of a killer upon his hands? Being an officer means exercising and upholding the authority. His decision to shoot the elephant ultimately reflects what Orwell classifies as most important: “And my whole life . . . was one long struggle not to be laughed at”. Although killing the elephant when it was harmlessly grazing like a cow, was something Orwell did not wish to do. He eventually fell to the pressure of the people.
Not only did he base his actions on the fear of being laughed at, but he also acted upon his desire for respect from those watching and all of those who would hear about the “sahib” who saved Moulmein. Orwell’s statement, “In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away”, truly shows that he couldn’t even bear to watch the elephant die its slow death as he was forced to leave the scene. The things he witnessed and put himself through laid the foundation for what Orwell believed in and how he acted.
Orwell’s value and character where truly demonstrate through his final argument in which he debates on whether to be active or passive. Each decision has an effect and Orwell conceded by what consequence he thought was less likely to affect him. Orwell shows how the influences of Imperialism harm both sides and he demonstrates this perfectly by turning himself, who is supposed to be the higher power, into the victim. Truly it is a tragedy, Orwell implies, how human beings will do certain things just to “avoid looking a fool. ”