Shooting an Elephant

Author

Orwell, George

Genre

Article/Essay

Overview

George Orwell, best known as the political novelist who wrote1984 and Animal Farm, was also a prolific journalist and essayist. "Shooting an Elephant" (1936) grew out of Orwell’s service as a young police officer with the British imperial government in Burma (now Myanmar) from 1922-1927, an experience that helped to make him a lifelong anti-imperialist. In this classic essay, the narrator feels pressured to resolve a problem by taking an action—killing an animal—that runs counter to his own best judgment. The pressure comes not from his superiors in the British colonial government but from the collective will of the Burmese crowd observing the scene. This text offers a clear-eyed and candid look at the isolation of leadership, the difficulty of being a courageous and moral leader in an immoral system, and the complex balance of power between leaders and those they lead.

Full Text*

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Source

Shooting an Elephant: And Other Essays by George Orwell. Penguin Classics, 2003

Type

Reading

Themes

Diversity and DifferenceLeadership and ResponsibilityPower and PrivilegeRace, Ethnicity and Culture

Big Questions

What assumptions do we make about others?Why is difference sometimes threatening?What do we expect from the people we lead? What do we expect from our own leaders?What makes a good leader?What is power? How does it work?What assumptions do we make about people from different races, ethnicities and cultures?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What makes the narrator important enough to be "hated by large numbers of people"?
  2. What does the narrator mean when he says, “still less did I know that [the British Empire] is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it”?
  3. What pressure does the narrator feel from the people of Moulmein? What do they expect from him?
  4. Why doesn’t the narrator want to shoot the elephant? Why does he feel obligated to do so? Why does he say he did it “solely to avoid looking a fool”?
  5. What power does the narrator have over the people of Moulmein? What power do the people of Moulmein have over the narrator?
  6. Did the narrator do the right thing? Why or why not? How do you know?
  7. What does it mean to be a moral leader in an immoral system?
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