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...
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...o the wrong spot cause the poor animal to die "very slowly and in great agony." In spite of Orwell putting "shot after shot into his heart and down his throat," the elephant lives thirty minutes after its "tortured gasps" force Orwell to leave. Many years later, Orwell still seems bothered by the fact that pride, not necessity, caused him to destroy the animal.
Each person must make difficult judgments in the course of everyday life. Decisions that seem trivial at the time may affect one's life for years. Sometimes the choice is whether to meet the expectations of others or to meet the expectations of the conscience. One's maturity is measured when one encounters the elephant and decides to shoot it to please the crowd, or to not shoot it and appear to be weak. Either choice may follow one to the grave.
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