George Orwell, “



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George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”
“Shooting an Elephant” is a classic example of an author using a personal experience to illuminate a political institution and its social implications: here, the experience of shooting an elephant and the British Raj (the imperial government of India and Burma), and colonialism itself. Orwell carefully and precisely renders setting, action, and character (himself) by developing his responses, feelings, and thoughts with novelistic density. He braids into the narrative the personal responses to the experience: “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” (paragraph 14). Orwell, whom you are likely to know as the author of Animal Farm and 1984, served in the British police force in Burma after leaving school. The experience heightened his political consciousness. “Shooting an Elephant” is also an essay about how the expectations of others force us to play roles, to behave in ways that we do not choose, and to behave as selves other than the selves we think we are—worse selves, as in this essay, and sometimes better selves as well. Orwell, though he does not use the term, is conscious of what we now refer to as the “social construction of reality.” Yet, in “Shooting an Elephant,” he both affirms and denies it: that is, he presents role-playing as educative. “I perceived in this moment,” he writes, “that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys” (paragraph 7).
Vocabulary from “Shooting an Elephant”

  1. petty (adj) not serious or important

  2. nimble (adj) quick and light on your feet

  3. bait (verb) to provoke; irritate to make angry

  4. flog (verb) to beat (a person or animal) with a stick

  5. ravage (verb) to destroy or ruin

  6. squalid – dirty, unclean, filthy

  7. unnerving – to upset or frighten someone and make them lose confidence

  8. senile – mentally confused because of old age

  9. garish – too bright (almost vulgar)

  10. squeamish – easily upset by unpleasant things


Study Questions:


  1. Who is the narrator and what is his position in the Burmese village?




  1. How are Europeans, particularly the British, regarded by the native population? Why? Include some specific examples in your answer.




  1. What is the narrator’s basic internal conflict, even before the incident with the elephant occurs?




  1. Why does the narrator not want to shoot the elephant? (3 reasons)




  1. Why, in fact, does he kill the elephant? Answer in some detail.




  1. What is the theme in Orwell’s narrative? That is, what idea does he develop in regard to white colonialism?


  1. Why did Orwell shoot the elephant? Account for the motives that led him to shoot. Then categorize them as personal motives, circumstantial motives, social motives, or political motives. Is it easy to assign his motives to categories? Why or why not?

(Notice the dense rendering of Orwell’s narrative and how he constructs it, but also how Orwell’s realization of his motives comes not precisely at the moment he pulls the trigger, but years later as he writes his essay.)


  1. In this essay the proportion of narrative to analysis is high. Mark each paragraph as narrative or analytic, and note, in particular, how much analysis Orwell places in the middle of the essay. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having it there rather than at the beginning or the end of the essay?

(Analyze the opening paragraphs in terms of shifts from narration to commentary. As you will soon see, a personal-experience essay moves frequently back and forth from one to the other. It does not, as students sometimes assume, give all narrative first, all commentary last.)


  1. Facts ordinarily do not speak for themselves. How does Orwell present his facts to make them speak in support of his analytic points? Look, for example, at the death of the elephant (paragraphs 11 to 13).




  1. How does Orwell reconcile social construction and individual freedom?




  1. Orwell's essays and novels can be read as protests against economic and social injustices. In fact, a critic once wrote that Orwell "would not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry." Identify the political and social themes in this essay and to comment on the effectiveness of Orwell's rhetoric.




  1. Rewrite one section of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” from the point of view of one of the Burmese.


Please e-mail your responses to krayf@randolph.k12.ma.us by______________________.

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