Discuss the psychological conflict of the narrator in the essay Shooting an Elephant.

George_OrwellAnswer: In ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ George Orwell finds himself in a difficult situation. ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is an autobiographical essay in which Orwell describes in realistic and graphic details his own experience in Burma during the British colonial rule in the sub-continent as sub-divisional police officer. In the essay the author very skillfully and opt-fully delineates his inner conflict and psychological complexity. From the analysis of his mental conflict and psychological complexity we find him in the midst of predicament.

Orwell was a sub-divisional police officer in Moulmein in lower Burma. He was hated by a large number of people. There was anti-European feeling in the town. People did not have the courage to start a riot, but they could insult the Europeans or laugh at the narrator. When he was tripped on the football field by some Burmese players, the author would get nervous at seeing the yellow faces of the native specially the young Buddist priests sneering at him. He was upset by the impertinent behavior of the Burmese. He was so annoyed that he came to consider Imperialism an ‘evil’ thing. He was in conflict whether he would punish the native or let them in their way.

However as he belonged to the ruling class he had an opportunity to see everything closely specially the by-products of colonialism. He was theoretically against the British rulers and all for the natives. The sight of prisoners and convinces who were cruelly treated oppressed him with an intolerable sense of guilt. He hated the “British Raj” and regarded it as “an unbreakable tyranny”. On the contrary, he had a great contempt for the foolish, jeering natives. Such contradictory feeling shows the authors dilemma.

When he was informed about the Elephant, he possessed a ‘44-winchester rifle’ which was not strong enough to kill the big animal. He was confused whether the information was correct or not. He was confused about the direction to the spot because he was informed by different natives about it differently. When he reached the spot he was in a fix because the elephant was as calm as a cow. He was indecisive whether he should kill the animal or not because killing a working elephant was ‘comparable to destroy a huge and costly piece of machinery’ standing there with a rifle in his hand. Before a crowd of unarmed natives he for the first time noticed the hollowness, the futility of the white men’s dominance in the East. He describes his predicament in the following words. “Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd-seeming the leading actor of the piece, but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.” The Europeans were regarded as Sahib by the Barmese. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.


The conventional image of sahib robbed him of freedom of choosing his own activities. “A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things”. Consequently, he was caught in a psychologically complex situation that he was automatically more concerned with the satisfaction of the natives than his own. The natives thought that there was nothing impossible to the ‘sahib’. If he did not shoot the elephant, the illiterate local people would laugh at him. He did not want to be laughed at by them. They would consider him a coward. He was aware of his position and identity. These gives vent to the psychological conflict that the author was undergoing during his stay in the British India.

The oscillation to decide whether to kill the elephant or not further heightens the psychological complexity of the narrator. The crowd of two thousand people was waiting to see him shoot the elephant. He was afraid if he did not shoot it, the crowd would turn against him. His circumstances compelled him to shoot the big animal.

The animal did not die instantly. So he was in a conflict whether he would wait for the animal to die or leave the place. Finally he left the place and was informed about the death of the animal half an hour later. He was again in a conflict whether he did the right thing or wrong because some people were criticizing about it and some were telling it to be the right thing to do.

Orwell could not grow a liking for the oppressive British colonial rule in India and felt ashamed of being a part of it. He was ever disturbed and vexed by the conflict that kept on going in his mind. The conflict arose from the fact that on the one hand he opposed the things of imperialism and considered it as ‘an evil thing’ and on the other hand he himself belonged to that oppressing class.

Orwell’s sympathy for the natives and his position among the oppressing rulers made it difficult for him to continue his job as a police officer. The anti-European feeling of the natives aggravated the situation for the author. Ultimately, it seemed that Orwell quitted his job in Burma and left for England, though not mentioned in the essay.