An Elephant-Sized Dilemma In George Orwell's Shooting An Elephant
Upon seeing the titular elephant, the narrator does “not want to shoot the elephant. [He sees] that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have… [I]t would be murder to shoot him” (Orwell 3). Orwell compares the elephant to imperialism using this extended metaphor. The narrator knows that the elephant threatens the lives of colonial citizens, just as how colonial subjects threaten the lives of British citizens when they revolt. The narrator also knows that it would be wrong to shoot the elephant, using the words “grandmotherly” and “murder” to emphasize his point. “Grandmotherly” evokes images of one’s grandmother: old and frail but kind and innocent. The word “murder”, in contrast, has very negative connotations, and most societies consider murder the most serious crime, even punishable by death. These words give the elephant human-like qualities, further making the narrator’s decision tougher. The narrator must decide whether to shoot the elephant or leave it alive, creating internal conflict because his desire to keep the elephant alive conflicts with the crowd’s desire to kill it. The internal conflict within the narrator parallels Britain’s moral dilemma over imperialism: should the British treat the elephant (or British colonial subjects, metaphorically) horribly, by shooting it and reaping the material rewards of its death, or by treating it like a human and leaving it alive? Furthermore, as stated earlier, the Burmese only want to shoot the elephant for a “bit of fun.” They do not care about the elephant until it presents the opportunity for a spectacle, mirroring the British people’s attitude towards imperialism: apathy and neglect until a possibility of entertainment arises. The British crowd parallels the Burmese crowd in this case: a crowd that pushes immoral actions as a collective body.