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Shooting an Elephant 
by George Orwell (1936) 

Level: Advanced (abridged & slightly simplified)

 I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him

 I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him

George Orwell's first career was as a British imperial policeman in Burma. Later he wrote his first novel about the experience. He also wrote two of his best essays: 'Shooting an Elephant' and 'A Hanging'.

In this extract from 'Shooting an Elephant, Orwell is called to deal with an escaped elephant. A crowd of local onlookers gathers to watch 'a bit of fun'.

I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool. My rifle was over my shoulder and an ever-growing army of people followed at my heels. 

At the bottom, the elephant was standing eight yards from the road, his left side towards us.  Ignoring the crowd's approach, he continued tearing up bunches of grass and stuffing them into his mouth. 

I halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. At that distance, peacefully eating, he looked no more dangerous than a cow. 

I did not want to shoot him 

But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that now blocked the road for a long distance on either side. There were at least two thousand people. More were joining every minute. 

I looked at the sea of faces. All were happy and excited over this bit of fun. All were certain that the elephant was going to be shot. 

It was like I was a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. 

 

A Poor Shot 

And suddenly I realized that I had to shoot the elephant, after all. 

To come all that way, rifle in hand, and do nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at. 

I had to act quickly. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud. If the elephant charged and I missed him... 

Even then I was afraid in the ordinary sense, only of the crowd watching me. If anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see it. . And some of them would laugh. That would never do. 

A Terrible Change

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick. But I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. 

In that instant, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body altered. He looked suddenly immensely old. 

Quick Check

1. Why does the narrator 'feel a fool'?

2. Where is the elephant?

3. Why does the narrator not want to shoot the elephant?

4. Why does the crowd sound 'devilish'?

5 What is the 'terrible change' he sees in the elephant?

For a simplified version of the complete text (pdf) here

You can read the complete unabridged, unsimplified text
 here