Why is “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell classified as a reflective essay?

Why is “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell classified as a reflective essay?

To answer this question we should start from the definition of the reflective essay. The reflective essay is an essay that describes a person’s experience and the way this experience influenced their life. Let us briefly look through the George Orwell’s short story named “Shooting an Elephant” and see if it fits this definition.

From the Orwell’s biography we may learn that he spent some time serving in Burma and his position and the conditions of the service were quite similar to the narrator’s. We also know that there are no evidences proving that the case with the elephant happened with him personally and, moreover, that this case influenced his life in a way. Moreover, the conclusion of the short story (the narrator killed the elephant just to preserve his reputation) contradicts the worldview of Orwell himself. Still, most of the literature critics consider that the short story is more or less based on his personal experience in Burma. The vivid descriptions of the local landscapes, customs and people show that to write about them so thoroughly and precisely, George Orwell should have been at least a witness of the case.

If we look at the structure of the short story, we will see that it can clearly be divided to the parts of the classical reflective essay. In the introduction the setting is defined and the major thesis is given. It is Burma, the main character is the British policemen and he starts to reconsider the position the British people present themselves in colonies. The body of the story gives us the series of the events and each event is followed by the narrator’s reflection and portrayal of his feelings. We follow him chasing the elephant, seeing the terrified woman with kids and the dead body mutilated by the ravaging animal and feel what he felt at that moment. We see the narrator trying to shoot the elephant, but unable to kill him and know he leaves him wounded because he can’t stand watching the suffering of a dying animal. In the conclusion the author again returns to the topic he started from – he feels that something is wrong with his colleagues who casually talk about the elephant worth more than a man it killed. Putting an animal, though a very expensive one, above the human is very disturbing and, despite all the Orwell’s trademark irony, we can see the deep disgust he felt at that moment. Knowing his humane worldview, we can be sure that his experience in Burma (even if it wasn’t connected with this particular case) deeply influenced him in his further life.

So, the structure of the short story is more or less similar to the one of a reflective essay. Returning to the very idea of the story, we may say that it doesn’t really matter if the case with the elephant happened to Orwell, to some of his colleagues or didn’t happen at all. It can be a metaphor that sums up all the Orwell’s experience during his service in Burma and his feelings towards the locals and British people. The narrator is stuck between his loyalty to his country and the European civilization and the arrogance of the British policemen and British people in general. As a policeman himself he has to represent the law and order, reminding every local about the power of the British Empire, but we see that the narrator cares about the local lifestyle, studies it and cares about the people who surround him. He treats them as actual people and he never tries to measure his value in comparison to the elephant or something else.

From the short story we can conclude that such a state of affair deeply confuses the narrator and he wonders if he the only one in the police who sees the Burmans that way. He is also confused because he did what he did just to preserve his positive image, but he doesn’t know whether it was right or wrong anymore. The elephant killed a man, the owner of the elephant lost almost everything with its death (it’s like to lose the incredibly expensive instrument one uses to earn for living), the neighbors stripped the carcass to the bones in mere hours and would be fed for some days more and the policemen just doesn’t care at all.

This confusion and the desire not to look ridiculous or powerless are also the subjects of reflection. The narrator wonders if someone understood the real reasons of his actions. He admits that his actions were quite unsympathetic from the certain points of view and he is ashamed that he also couldn’t help but use the dead man as a reason to kill the elephant and save face. He can’t be blamed for anything, but still the narrator feels uneasy, because of such a morally ambiguous situation.

Though we still don’t know if the killed elephant was a metaphor or the real animal shot dead during Orwell’s service in the British police in Burma, what we can say is that his emotions and reflections are real for sure. No one can depict the hesitation, shame, pride and all this melted together so thoroughly without experiencing it, reflecting it, moving on and making conclusions. So, we can say that the short story “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell is a brilliant, though slightly unusual example of a reflective essay.

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