Posts Tagged ‘Orwell’

Shooting An Elephant

On the surface, this is a concise little essay about George Orwell’s time serving in Burma during the early 1900s. And I’ll be honest with you, the first time I read this piece, I read it for the story and I read it for the writing. I’m a writing arts major. I look at sentence structure, diction, and stylistic themes.

It wasn’t until after I revisited the piece, considered it, scratched my head a few times and pulled pensively  at my finger tips before I understood Orwell’s real message.

It’s a commentary on human nature. It looks at ethics and the politics of imperialism. Who would have knew? There’s a deep message in Shooting an Elephant. But like I said. I’m a writing arts major. It’s not entirely my job to critique meaning and themes and everything that comes with comparative literature. Sure, it shows up in great pieces of creative nonfiction. And building themes and having a message could give great value to a piece. I’d just rather focus on the style.

So here it is.

Orwell relies on emotion. From the opening line where Orwell gets straight to the point and says, “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people…” you quickly get the blunt tone Orwell is going for. He continues to use “charged” words throughout the essay.

You’ll see, “guilt,” “hatred,” “evil-spirited little beasts” and even “guts.” Orwell is able to level with the reader. He’s not using fancy prose. He’s being real. You can see that his service in Burma is something he feels strongly about, has vividly experienced, and isn’t trying to sugar coat.

Then there are the descriptions…or rather one major description in particular. And this is what made me a fan of Orwell.

It’s the death of the elephant. And anyone who has read it, knows what I mean. Because the elephant does not just die. Orwell makes him writhe. The sentences find a rhythm of urgency. It’s fast paced. It’s descriptive. It’s shocking. And most of all, it’s human.

I’m not about to write the whole passage, but here’s an idea.

“…he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. Once could have imagined him a thousand years old. I fired again into the same spot…I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs.”

It works because it is honest. And in my opinion, that’s what makes for a great creative nonfiction writer. Why hide the details? If it’s as horrendous as an experience as bringing down an elephant with multiple gun shots, it needs to come across in the writing. Orwell is renowned for this trait of brutal honesty and that’s something that I’m going to focus on in the next few posts.

APA Citation:

Bertonneau, T. (2002). An Overview of shooting the elephant. Short Stories for Students, Retrieved from

Keskinen, K. (1996). “shooting an elephant”-an essay to teach. English Journal, 55(6), Retrieved from

Orwell, G. (Ed.). (1936). Shooting an elephant. New York: St. Martin’s Press.