In his early twenties, George Orwell (1946) began a line of work he would later term “an unsuitable profession”: officer of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, which began his transformation into a writer of primarily political topics. His essay “Shooting an Elephant” describes his feelings of frustration in attempting to perform his duty – shooting a mad elephant discovered to have broken its chain, destroyed property, and killed a man – while avoiding the ridicule of the local population. (Orwell, 1936) The elephant can be seen to represent a number of individuals and groups in the story, held by various chains in their different circumstances.
Orwell (1936) began his narrative complaining of the animosity of the local population, but quickly moved to his own hatred of his position as a representative of the British imperial government. Though secretly sympathetic to the locals and their resentment of European intrusion into their country, he could not openly express or act upon that sentiment, and thus experienced the same derision as his countrymen. Recognizing the superior military capability of their occupiers, the Burmans limited their expression of this resentment to “safe” actions, from a plausibly accidental missed call in the course of a sporting event to insults and sneers on the public streets. (Orwell, 1936)
The action of the story commences within this framework of tension, of strong feelings muzzled by stronger fears. Receiving a telephone call one morning with the disturbing news of an elephant in the madness of musth, Orwell (1936) set out, equipped with only a small rifle and his determination to save face. Villagers in a poorer section of town claimed that the beast had destroyed dwellings and some shops in the bazaar; but a more specific horror arose when he encountered the mangled body of a man, half-skinned and crushed by the elephant’s sheer power and rage. Realizing that the animal must be put down (though denying that point in a later paragraph), he sent a subordinate to fetch a gun more appropriate to the task.
The local population turned out in large numbers with the arrival of the new, more effective weapon; their desires for free entertainment and free food – courtesy of the elephant and Orwell (1936), newly armed with an elephant-gun – appearing to be soon fulfilled. This in turn made him nervous about his role in the action; he thought he had wanted the gun just in case of emergency, though admitting he was not a good shot and hardly prepared for self-defense against a the elephant if it decided to charge him. Catching sight of the animal gave him further pause: the attack of musth apparently over, it was calm and uninterested in the proceedings. His desire to merely verify that the danger had passed and then leave with no further incident, fell before the expectation of the crowd, over two thousand strong and growing, “faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be...