GEORGE ORWELL

Shooting an Elephant (1936)

George Orwell (1903–1950) has written some of the most influential novels and essays

of the 20th century. His work, including Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four,

centers on biting satire, examinations of the dangers of totalitarian political systems,

and frightening depictions of future dystopias. As you read, consider the way Orwell

presents himself as the narrator through his depictions of his actions and reactions.

 

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.

I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of

way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but

if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably

spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was

baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up

on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the

crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end

the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults

hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young

Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in

the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street

corners and jeer at Europeans.

All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up

my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job

and got out of it the better. Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for

the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was

doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you

see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in

the stinking cages of the lockups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts,

the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos—all these

oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective.

I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in

the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even

know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal

better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I

was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil spirited

little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my

mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something

clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another

part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet

into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal byproducts of imperialism;

ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening.

It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had

before of the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic

governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the

other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was

ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not

know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a

pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old .44 Winchester and much too small

to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem. Various

Burmans stopped me on the way and told me about the elephant’s doings. It was

not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone “must.” It had

been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of “must” is due,

but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the

only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit,

but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours’ journey away, and

in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in the town. The Burmese

population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it. It had already destroyed

somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow, and raided some fruit-stalls and

devoured the stock; also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver

jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences

upon it.

The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me

in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a

labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palm-leaf, winding all over a

steep hillside. I remember that it was a cloudy, stuffy morning at the beginning of

the rains. We began questioning people as to where the elephant had gone, and,

as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the

East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to

the scene of events the vaguer it becomes. Some of the people said that the elephant

had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some

professed not even to have heard of an elephant. I had almost made up my mind

that the whole story was a pack of lies, when we heard yells a little distance away.

There was a loud, scandalized cry of “Go away, child! Go away this instant!” and

an old woman with a switch in her hand came round the corner of a hut, violently

shooing away a crowd of naked children. Some more women followed,

clicking their tongues and exclaiming; evidently there was something that the

children ought not to have seen. I rounded the hut and saw a man’s dead body

sprawling in the mud. He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked,

and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant

had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him

with its trunk, put its foot on his back, and ground him into the earth. This was

the rainy season and the ground was soft, and his face had scored a trench a foot

deep and a couple of yards long. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified

and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide

open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony.

(Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I have

seen looked devilish.) The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin

from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit. As soon as I saw the dead man I sent

an orderly to a friend’s house nearby to borrow an elephant rifle. I had already

sent back the pony, not wanting it to go mad with fright and throw me if it

smelled the elephant.

The orderly came back in a few minutes with a rifle and five cartridges, and

meanwhile some Burmans had arrived and told us that the elephant was in the

paddy fields below, only a few hundred yards away. As I started forward practically

the whole population of the quarter flocked out of the houses and followed

me. They had seen the rifle and were all shouting excitedly that I was going to

shoot the elephant. They had not shown much interest in the elephant when he

was merely ravaging their homes, but it was different now that he was going to be

shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they

wanted the meat. It made me vaguely uneasy. I had no intention of shooting the

elephant—I had merely sent for the rifle to defend myself if necessary—and it is

always unnerving to have a crowd following you. I marched down the hill, looking

and feeling a fool, with the rifle over my shoulder and an ever-growing army

of people jostling at my heels. At the bottom, when you got away from the huts,

there was a metalled road and beyond that a miry waste of paddy fields a thousand

yards across, not yet ploughed but soggy from the first rains and dotted with

coarse grass. The elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards

us. He took not the slightest notice of the crowd’s approach. He was tearing

up bunches of grass, beating them against his knees to clean them and stuffing

them into his mouth.

I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect

certainty that 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. And at that distance,

peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I

thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in

which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came

back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided

that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn

savage again, and then go home.

But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It

was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It

blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow

faces above the garish clothes—faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all

certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they

would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with

the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I

realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it

of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward,

irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my

hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion

in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the

unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I

was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.

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. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall

spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got

to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit

it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent

for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to

know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand,

with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away,

having done nothing—no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me.

And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to

be laughed at.

But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of

grass against his knees, with the preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants

have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not

squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never

wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there

was the beast’s owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a

hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five

pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experiencedlooking

Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the

elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of

you if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him.

It was 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 steamroller. But even then I was not thinking particularly

of my own skin, only of 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. A white man mustn’t be frightened in front

of “natives”; and so, in general, he isn’t frightened. 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 probable that some of them would

laugh. That would never do. There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges

into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim.

The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see

the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats. They were

going to have their bit of fun after all. The rifle was a beautiful German thing

with cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one

would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from earhole to ear-hole. I ought,

therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole;

actually I aimed several inches in front of this, thinking the brain would be further

forward.

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick—one never

does when a shot goes home—but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up

from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought,

even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the

elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line on his body had altered. He

looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact

of the bullet had paralyzed him without knocking him down. At last, after

what seemed a long time— it might have been five seconds, I dare say—he

sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed

to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I

fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed

with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging

and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You

could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of

strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his

hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upwards like a huge rock

toppling, his trunk reaching skywards like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and

only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that

seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

I got up. The Burmans were already racing past me across the mud. It was

obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was

breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side

painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open—I could see far down into

the caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his

breathing did not weaken. Finally, I fired my two remaining shots into the spot

where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet,

but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him,

the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and

in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could

damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It

seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet

 

 

 

 

 

ORWELL Shooting an Elephant P. 5

powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small

rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed

to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of

a clock.

In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it

took him half an hour to die. Burmans were bringing dahs and baskets even before

I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the

afternoon.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of

the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do

nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be

killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion

was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a

damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was

worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I 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. I often wondered whether any of the others

grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.