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Using Classic and Contemporary Literature to Explore Themes in Law and Politics
Unformatted Document Text:  escaped. The officer thinks about approaching the elephant but if the animal decides to charge, his poor rifle skills would certainly result in his death, probably to the delight of the crowd. That outcome is unacceptable so the officer concludes that he must shoot the elephant. He raises the rifle and fires several rounds into the elephant. The animal is in agony but it does not die. The officer leaves the scene and learns later that it took another thirty minutes for the beast to die, after which the crowd strips the animal for its meat and ivory. In discussing the incident with fellow Europeans, the older men argue that he was legally right to shoot the elephant because it had killed a native but the younger men think that it was a shame to shoot the elephant for killing a coolie because an elephant was worth more than the native coolie. The officer wonders if anyone realizes that he simply killed the elephant to avoid looking like a fool. Orwell’s story teaches a lesson about imperialism that cannot be adequately captured in a basic textbook on world politics. For Orwell, the “real nature of imperialism” is that it enslaves both the hegemon and the native population. When the white man becomes the imperialist tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys. The officer in the story is conflicted because he is against the British because of their oppression of the Burmese people but because of his role as a police officer, he was part of the oppression that he loathed. By enforcing the strict British rule, he is forfeiting his freedom while concurrently oppressing the Burmese. Some literary critics have argued that the elephant is a metaphor for either the British empire or the nations that are subject to British occupation. To take this lesson to another level, it is interesting to have students compare and contrast Orwell’s views on imperialism with those of Rudyard Kipling in “The White Man’s Burden” where Kipling encourages American imperialism in the Philippines. If viewed from the perspective of the colonial police officer as a street-level bureaucrat, the story also instructs us about the use of administrative discretion. The ideal exercise of Page | 16

Authors: Fliter, John.
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escaped. The officer thinks about approaching the elephant but if the animal decides to charge,
his poor rifle skills would certainly result in his death, probably to the delight of the crowd. That
outcome is unacceptable so the officer concludes that he must shoot the elephant. He raises the
rifle and fires several rounds into the elephant. The animal is in agony but it does not die. The
officer leaves the scene and learns later that it took another thirty minutes for the beast to die,
after which the crowd strips the animal for its meat and ivory. In discussing the incident with
fellow Europeans, the older men argue that he was legally right to shoot the elephant because it
had killed a native but the younger men think that it was a shame to shoot the elephant for killing
a coolie because an elephant was worth more than the native coolie. The officer wonders if
anyone realizes that he simply killed the elephant to avoid looking like a fool.
Orwell’s story teaches a lesson about imperialism that cannot be adequately captured in a
basic textbook on world politics. For Orwell, the “real nature of imperialism” is that it enslaves
both the hegemon and the native population. When the white man becomes the imperialist
tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys. The officer in the story is conflicted because he is
against the British because of their oppression of the Burmese people but because of his role as a
police officer, he was part of the oppression that he loathed. By enforcing the strict British rule,
he is forfeiting his freedom while concurrently oppressing the Burmese. Some literary critics
have argued that the elephant is a metaphor for either the British empire or the nations that are
subject to British occupation. To take this lesson to another level, it is interesting to have
students compare and contrast Orwell’s views on imperialism with those of Rudyard Kipling in
“The White Man’s Burden” where Kipling encourages American imperialism in the Philippines.
If viewed from the perspective of the colonial police officer as a street-level bureaucrat,
the story also instructs us about the use of administrative discretion. The ideal exercise of
Page | 16


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