Based on Orwell’s experience with the Indian Imperial Police (1922-1927), “Shooting an Elephant” is set in Moulmein, in Lower Burma. Orwell, the narrator, has already begun to question the presence of the British in the Far East. He says that, theoretically and secretly, he was “all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.” Orwell describes himself as “young and ill-educated,” bitterly hating his job.
Orwell’s job, in this instance, is to respond to a report of the death of a local man who was killed by an elephant in musth. Orwell finds the man “lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to the side.” The corpse grins with “an expression of unendurable agony.” At this point, Orwell feels the collective will of the crowd urging him to shoot the elephant, but Orwell, knowing that the elephant is probably no longer dangerous, has no intention of shooting the elephant. He begins to anthropomorphize the elephant, changing the pronouns from “it” to “he,” referring to the elephant’s “preoccupied grandmotherly air,” and concluding that “it would be murder to shoot the elephant.”
Despite Orwell’s aversion to shooting the elephant, he becomes suddenly aware that he will lose face and be humiliated if he does not shoot it. He therefore shoots the elephant. The death itself is sustained in excruciating detail. After three shots, the elephant still does not die. Orwell fires his two remaining shots into the elephant’s heart. He sends someone to get his small rifle, then pours “shot after shot into his heart and down his throat.” Still, the elephant does not die. Orwell, unable to stand the elephant’s suffering and unable to watch and listen to it, goes away. The elephant, like the Burmese people, has become the unwitting victim of the British imperialist’s need to save face. No one is stronger for the experience.
Orwell candidly depicts his unsympathetic actions both in shooting the elephant and in the aftermath, when he is among his fellow British police officers. He is relieved, he admits, that the coolie died, because it gave him a pretext for shooting the elephant. As far as his fellow officers are concerned, he did the right thing. As far as the natives are concerned, he saved face. Yet Orwell concludes, “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”
Throughout the essay, Orwell weaves his thesis about the effects of imperialism not only on the oppressed but on the oppressors, as well. He says that “every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at,” that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys,” and that the imperialist “becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.” Orwell’s essay, however, is more than one person’s riveting narrative about the beginning of an awareness. “Shooting an Elephant” captures a universal experience of going against one’s own humanity at the cost of a part of that humanity.
The host of Animal Planet’s Monsters Inside Me explores the world of parasites and their human hosts.
Evolutionary biologist Riskin paints a disgusting yet highly entertaining and informative canvas illustrating how living things use behaviors that are often gross and frightening to survive and thrive. The author is a passionate observer of bats, and his career studying them in their various habitats around the world has given him distinct impressions of Mother Nature. Rather than the gentle, incomplete and utopian vision presented by marketers and the media, the author argues for a different perspective. While not dismissing the gifts provided by the natural world, humans should also understand the other side of our natural environment. “I think the disgusting, immoral, and violent side of nature, the side that the grocery stores and shampoo commercials leave out, contains its most awe-inspiring and beautiful parts,” writes the author. Devoting a chapter to each of the seven deadly sins— greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, wrath and pride—Riskin takes readers through remarkable scientific territory. Discussing sloth, the author tears down preconceptions surrounding the idea of nature being a “perfect model of hard work,” sharing stories of parasites who mooch off their hosts, including vampire bats that eat nothing but blood; worms that can grow to four inches long in the human body and cause elephantiasis. In the chapter on wrath, Riskin explodes the myth of nature as a peaceable kingdom. The author’s narrative examining killer whales’ instincts, especially those in captivity, jolts the senses. He explains the difference between venom and poison while discussing poisonous snakes, and woven throughout the narrative are queries surrounding the “roots of fatherly love,” arising from the birth of his son and the role of nature in this relationship.
A fact-filled and amusing trek through nature’s dark side that adroitly combines learning and the yuck factor.