A Moral Dilemma in Orwell's Shooting an Elephant
Unanticipated choices one is forced to make can have long-lasting effects. In "Shooting an Elephant," by George Orwell, the author recounts an event from his life when he was about twenty years old during which he had to choose the lesser of two evils. Many years later, the episode seems to still haunt him. The story takes place at some time during the five unhappy years Orwell spends as a British police officer in Burma. He detests his situation in life, and when he is faced with a moral dilemma, a valuable work animal has to die to save his pride.
Orwell is an unhappy young policeman who lives in mental isolation. He hates British imperialism, he hates Burmese natives, and he hates his job. He is completely alone with his thoughts since he cannot share his idea that "imperialism was an evil thing" with his countrymen. Orwell sees the British rule as "an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down. . . upon the will of prostate peoples" because he observes firsthand the cruel imprisonments and whippings that the British use to enforce their control. Nor can he talk to the Burmese because of the "utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East." This "utter silence" results from the reasoning behind imperialism that says, "Our cultures are different. My culture has more power than your culture. Therefore, my culture is superior in every way, and it will rule yours." If one is a member of a superior culture, one must not make jokes, share confidences, or indicate in any way that a member of the inferior culture is one's equal. A wall, invisible but impenetrable, stands between the British and the Burmese. His hatred for the Burmese is caused by their bitter feelings against the oppressive Europeans. Orwell says, ". . . I was an obvious target and was baited," and when he is tripped during a soccer game, "the crowd yelled with hideous laughter," which seriously assaults the ego of this young man. He says 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." Helping to oppress the Burmese causes him to feel guilty and to hate his job "more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear." While standing in this quagmire of hatred, Orwell encounters one of the defining moments of his life.
An innocent chain of events forces Orwell into a position in which he must choose between two undesirable options. When he goes to check a report that a tame elephant under the influence of "must" has broken loose and is causing damage, Orwell takes a medium caliber rifle which is "much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem." Upon finding that a coolie has been killed by the...