This week I read just one short story, Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell. Actually I had no idea that Orwell wrote short stories too. I sort of stumbled onto this one. The story is narrated by an unnamed, British, police officer in Burma when it was under British rule. The officer talks of the contempt the Burmese have for the Europeans who presume to rule them. As a paid servant of the oppressive regime, he is hated and mocked by the natives, although he would personally never harm anyone. While he is irritated and hurt by the hatred of the natives, the actions of the British are downright repulsive to him. He relates the agonies and tortures that the locals are put through by the ostensibly civilized Imperial power. He would like nothing better than to chuck up his job and head back home but needs must and so he plods on, dissatisfied and bitter.
Then one day, there are reports of an elephant ravaging a bazaar and the officer is asked to go do something about it. He hasn’t the vaguest idea what he can do about it, but sets forth anyway, with his pony and a rifle. After some hunting about and general confusion, it is discovered that the elephant trampled to death a coolie. The townspeople want the elephant to pay (besides, they like the idea of all that elephant meat). The officer is horrified at the very idea of shooting an elephant in cold blood. Especially since the elephant in question seems to have calmed down. But he realizes that the mob behind him will not let him back out now. What follows is a momentous struggle, both within and without.
This short story is supposedly an autobiographical account of the time Orwell served as a police officer in Burma. There is definitely an insider’s perspective here. Orwell believes that imperialism corrodes and disfigures not only the oppressed but also the oppressor. This story illustrates that belief beautifully. This could so easily have turned into an ‘us against them’ tirade, but Orwell never dehumanizes anyone. As a result, you feel for everyone, the natives who are being subjugated in their own land, the isolated and voiceless European officers and most of all the poor elephant who has nothing to do with imperialism but falls prey to it all the same. The last bit of the story is tragic and terribly disturbing but Orwell makes his point here, effectively and memorably.
George Orwell sketch from http://stellarcafe.blogspot.com/2009_06_01_archive.html