The Morality Of Death In Shooting An Elephant By George Orwell

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Thousands of eyes glare onto a man facing a dilemma. A scavenging creature lingers in the background, one whose fate will soon be determined. With one finger on the trigger and hearts racing, the soldier looks onto the majestic giant in the distance. One final glance into the scope pinpoints the desired spot which the bullet will pierce. One last breath is drawn and the trigger hugs the guard. ​BANG! ​Smoke rises from the rifle’s muzzle and the colossal titan falls. The crowd stands in awe as the hunter approaches the beast to deliver not one, not two but four more rounds into its tough hide. With that the hunter walks away from the scene abandoning a large crowd of spectators stunned. 

What drew my attention to this scene is how the incident portrays the reality of imperialism and the subtle aspects of the human psyche. 

Throughout George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”, we as the reader witness a British officer struggle internally when facing a question of morality and ethics. Both the elephant and British officer help prove the idea that imperialism is a double-edged sword. Imperialism not only inflicts damage on the colonizing country, but also the colonized nation. The British officer displays aspects of being the helpless puppet manipulated by the threads of imperialism. Throughout the course of the story the officer constantly remarks he “had no intention of shooting the elephant”; he’s presented with Hamlet’s dilemma – to shoot or not to shoot, but ultimately decides the latter. Why? Because it ​was expected of him​. 

Consider for a moment James A. Tyner’s words: “It is a matter of who we are through a concern with where we are”. As an agent and leader of the dominant British Empire, the officer is expected to behave at all times in front of the impoverished Burmese people as a rigid, callous tyrant. He feels compelled to act against his will; to live up to his representative role. Once faced with the peacefully grazing animal, he contemplates walking away but falls victim to the peer pressure from the Burmese. ​At this moment, the officer reaches an epiphany and Orwell writes: 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 [a master]…He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. The British officer winds up shooting the serene elephant without wanting to so as to prevent himself from ‘looking a fool” and being derided by the group. His encounter with peer pressure from the Burmese locals and a desire to complete his job as an agent of the British Empire causes him to act against his will. 

Looking back on my own experiences last summer (2018), I applied for my very first job. I had no other option but to present a façade of myself if I had any hopes of getting it; I wore a navy blue shirt, silver tie, dress shoes, and some slacks to create a great first impression; an Rios 3 impression that would differ greatly had I worn shorts and a t-shirt. Little did my future boss know that at that moment, all I wanted was to get the hell out and go back home. A few moments into my interview, I was asked why I was excited to work there. My response: ‘Though this will be my first job, I believe that I possess the necessary skills and talents that make me a trustworthy employee to uphold all that this company stands for. I’m also excited to interact with people from all walks of life and help them create memorable moments here at this amusement park’. What utter bullshit! I was there for the money, plain and simple. But I couldn’t say that, ya’ know? I eventually got hired, but I couldn’t help myself from feeling guilty of lying. I wanted to be completely honest, but I needed this job. 

I was expected to present myself as an individual, but only the parts that seemed appealing to my employers; to present them with information they ​wanted ​to hear. I had to remain conscious of the words I spoke as to prevent myself from ruining my chances at getting this job. I was being dishonest while trying to present an honest image of myself. This inherent dual nature of presenting oneself plays a key role in explaining the motives behind the elephant’s death in Orwell’s story. 

Shooting an Elephant presents a moment wherein Orwell stands up to an ethical dilemma and surrenders his ethics to escape from the taunting of the local Burmese. He repeatedly shoots and murders an elephant which had ravaged a bazaar and terrified numerous Burmese despite the fact that it was not necessary to kill it. Orwell’s ethical clash originates from his situation as the disdained colonialist in a colonized nation. Orwell deserts his ethics and slaughters the elephant to garner the approval of the Burmese. He talks about himself when he says, ‘it is the condition of rule that he shall spend his life trying to impress the natives”. And so in every crisis, he must live up to someone else’s expectations. His story portrays him “wear[ing] a mask” that suffocates him every time his face “grows to fit in”. 

The elephant alongside the two thousand Burmese plays a considerably all the more discouraging job when contrasted with the officer. The elephant speaks to the ‘stricken, shrunked; immensely old” nations that have been attacked and conquered by colonialism, while the Burmese speak to its powerless individuals. The once extraordinary elephant is diminished to ‘senility” by the bullets similarly as imperial nations with unrivaled innovations dominate nations like India. The ‘great beast”​ ​which means both the elephant and the nations it speaks to, becomes ‘powerless to move and yet powerless to die’ under the hands of the white man. 

Was the officer’s decision to kill the elephant cruel? Yes Was it immoral? Well…Yes and no Morality is subjective. Though we are quick to judge the officer based on his actions, we have to put aside our own views of right and wrong and examine the situation from the eyes of the officer and what ​he ​sees as right and wrong. What would I do had I been placed in the officer’s shoes? I want to say that I would drop the rifle and walk away satisfied knowing I spared the elephant’s life. However, what consequences would this action entail? Certainly not a standing ovation for acting on my moral principles. I would be seen as weak, an outcast, a “fool” (Orwell), tossed out to become part of the others – part of the “evil spirited little beasts”. Orwell manages to present us with a certain situation that lead to the questioning of our own morality. The officer could have picked one of two options and based on our own moral Rios 5 stance, we entrust the officer to do the right thing. Orwell leaves us to pick the side we align ourselves with, to justify or challenge the officer’s decision, and to have a conversation about the meaning of right and wrong based on the officer’s environment and the situation he found himself in.

The question of morality also appears in Joseph Conrad’s ​Heart of Darkness. ​In it, Conrad​ ​presents an individual who has surrendered complete control to his animalistic impulses and uncontrollable “passions” – his id (Freud 19). Joseph Conrad presents the journey of Marlow, the protagonist, into the heart of the Congo. In multiple episodes along his journey, he witnesses the cruelty and selfishness of European colonialism. Conrad’s use of Marlow’s quest towards the infamous Mr. Kurtz – and Kurtz himself – provides him with a new understanding of the selfish and cruel qualities of humankind. Marlow remarks “some [soldiers]…got drowned in the surf; but whether they did or not, nobody seemed particularly to care”(Conrad 10). The remorse for human life completely diminishes and Marlow become appalled by his environment. He also points out the conditions of the African natives, he admits he can “see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected with a chain”(Conrad 13). 

Conrad wants his audience to associate themselves with Marlow; to associate themselves with someone who ventures into the unrestrained depths of their minds to discover their moral principles.With someone whose moral stance and outlook of the world around them changes as time progresses and experience accumulates. To be someone who can resist giving into our temptations despite everything going around us; to be someone who fights against the “direct influence[s] of the external world” (Freud 18-19). 

However, Conrad does not rule out the possibility of giving into our passions, of becoming self-centered. He emphasizes this point by explaining how Marlow sits “apart, indistinct, and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha”. His journey into the Congo results in Marlow losing faith in humanity and leaves him corrupted (he’s described as a Buddha without a lotus flower). By sitting apart from the men around him, Marlow distinguishes himself from European society. He witnessed the horrors of imperialism and does not want to take part in its practice; he witnessed what lies in the heart of humanity and does not want to relive these moments anymore. Europeans see the Natives as savages and uncivilized, but Marlow now understands that the European colonizers manifest all of the savage characteristics. His return home illustrate the new understanding he acquired in the Congo which elevates him to an enlightened state of mind. I​n the aftermath of shooting the elephant, the officer could “not stand [looking a it] any longer and went away” (Orwell). The sight of having blood on his hands becomes unbearable; deep down, he’s broken an adopted moral principle. ​When the officer signed up for the position in Burma he was unaware of the moral struggle that he was going to face (similar to Marlow in ​Heart of Darkness)​. Likewise, he experiences an internal clash between his moral conscious and his immoral actions. He becomes a puppet to the will of the Burmese when he relies on their morals rather than his own conscience. 

But the officer’s morals aren’t completely his own. Similar to young children, external forces mold and shape the way he sees the world and people around him. Fault for the elephant’s death does not completely fall into his hands. His attitude towards the Burmese and his perception of right and wrong stemmed from officers who outrank him and order him around. These powerful figures set the rules and everyone beneath them must follow them.

Therefore, could the elephant’s death have been prevented? I definitely think so, but that would require reforming the entire system set in place that ensured the Europeans stayed in power; to change the way Europeans view the underdeveloped countries. To break away from the dogma of imperialism. To debunk the importance of our image in the eyes of others. Breaking away from this mentality would require breaking the cycle of oppression and supremacy. Systems of power protect themselves. In other words, the elephant’s death only fortified this established system by preserving the European’s image of superiority.

Morals are passed down through the generations. At some stage in my life, I looked up to someone else to guide me through my earliest stages of life. I absorbed and adopted whatever information was presented to me. I was an officer looking towards my superiors for guidance. Such morals governs my day-to-day choices and has helped mold me into the person I am today. The moral principles I have adopted guide me whenever I face difficult situations. Whenever I break away from this stance, I feel it in every fiber of my being. The outcome of my decisions pulls at my heartstring and screams at my soul making it impossible to forget my wrongdoing. These wrongdoings become a burdened that I must carry on my shoulders for the rest of my life. These burdens tear me apart from the inside almost as if part of my soul is chipped away. Such internal punishment serves as a reminder of my immoral actions and pave a way towards potential redemption. 

I also believe it is very difficult to live according to our adopted moral principles. If we sincerely try to follow some good principles and seek to live by them, it will be hard for us to be one hundred percent consistent; there will always be slight deviations. I believe that’s a part of our humanity. I don’t believe we should pretend we are one hundred percent consistent when we’re not because that would be hypocrisy. We should not pretend we are better than we are. But if we are honest about our failures, we are not hypocrites merely because we fall short of our principles. If we want to live well, we try hard to stick to our principles in spite of our own failures or other people’s criticisms. 

Each person must make difficult judgments in the course of everyday life. Decisions that seem trivial at the time may affect one’s life for years. We witnessed the British officer struggle internally up to his confrontation with the elephant and thereafter. He attempted to justify his actions by claiming he had “legally..done the right thing”, but he does not accept the validity of his argument. He doubted the morality of shooting the elephant, but ultimately collapsed internally and gave into the pressure exerted by the Burmese. 

I am not defending the slaughter of the elephant, I merely want to present my own allegorical interpretations of its death. To acquire a significant understanding of the elephant’s death, one must explore the different motives that contributed to the officer’s actions. Sometimes the choice is whether to meet the expectations of others or to meet the expectations of the conscience; to stand out from the crowd or conform to the masses. That decision rests in our hands. There will come a time when our maturity will be measured, a time when we come face to face with the elephant, a time when we will decide whether to shoot it to please the crowd, or to not shoot it and walk away. 

Works Cited

  • Conrad, Joseph. ​Heart of Darkness​. Dover Publications, 2012.
  • Freud, Sigmund. ​The Ego and the Id​. W.W. Norton, 1962.
  • Orwell, George. ​Shooting an Elephant​. The University of Adelaide Library, 6 Mar. 2014, ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79s/.
  • ​Tyner, James A. “Landscape and the Mask of Self in George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant.’” Area​, vol. 37, no. 3, 2005, p. 260. ​EBSCOhost search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.20004459&site=eds-live.


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