Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

George Orwell's Essay on his Life in Burma: "Shooting An Elephant"

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

George Orwell confronted an Asian elephant like this one in the story recounted  for this lesson plan.

George Orwell confronted an Asian elephant like this one in the story recounted for this lesson plan.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Eric A. Blair, better known by his pen name, George Orwell, is today best known for his last two novels, the anti-totalitarian works Animal Farm and 1984. He was also an accomplished and experienced essayist, writing on topics as diverse as anti-Semitism in England, Rudyard Kipling, Salvador Dali, and nationalism. Among his most powerful essays is the 1931 autobiographical essay "Shooting an Elephant," which Orwell based on his experience as a police officer in colonial Burma.

This lesson plan is designed to help students read Orwell's essay both as a work of literature and as a window into the historical context about which it was written. This lesson plan may be used in both the History and Social Studies classroom and the Literature and Language Arts classroom.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Orwell use literary tools such as symbolism, metaphor, irony and connotation to convey his main point, and what is that point?
  • What is Orwell's argument or message, and what persuasive tools does he use to make it?

Learning Objectives

At the end of this lesson students will be able to

  • Situate Orwell's essay within its appropriate cultural and historical context
  • Distill and articulate the main points of this essay
  • Discuss Orwell's use persuasive tools such as symbolism, metaphor and irony in this essay, and explain how he uses each of these tools to convey his argument or message.

Background

The essay "Shooting an Elephant" is set in a town in southern Burma during the colonial period. The country that is today Burma (Myanmar) was, during the time of Orwell's experiences in the colony, a province of India, itself a British colony. Prior to British intervention in the nineteenth century Burma was a sovereign kingdom. After three wars between British forces and the Burmese, beginning with the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824-26, followed by the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, the country fell under British control after its defeat in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. Burma was subsumed under the administration of British India, becoming a province of that colony in 1886. It would remain an Indian province until it was granted the status of an individual British colony in 1937. Burma would gain its independence in January 1948.

Eric A. Blair was born in Mohitari, India, in 1903 to parents in the Indian Civil Service. His education brought him to England where he would study at Eton College ("college" in England is roughly equivalent to a US high school). However, he was unable to win a scholarship to continue his studies at the university level. With few opportunities available, he would follow his parents' path into service for the British Empire, joining the Indian Imperial Police in 1922. He would be stationed in what is today Burma (Myanmar) until 1927 when he would quit the imperial civil service in disgust. His experiences as a policeman for the Empire would form the basis of his early writing, including the novel Burmese Days as well as the essay "Shooting an Elephant." These experiences would continue to influence his world view and his writing until his death in 1950.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. British Bobbies in Burma

It was once said that the sun never set on the British Empire, whose territory touched every continent on earth. English imperialism evolved through several phases, including the early colonization of North America, to its involvement in South Asia, the colonization of Australia and New Zealand, its role in the nineteenth century scramble for Africa, involvement with politics in the Middle East, and its expansion into Southeast Asia. At the height of its power in the early twentieth century the British Empire had control over nearly two-fifths of the world's land mass and governed an empire of between 300 and 400 million people. It is the addition of the Southeast Asian countries today known as Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia and Singapore that set the stage for Orwell's vignette from the life of a colonial official.

  • Review with students the history of the British Empire. For World History courses, you may wish to utilize materials you have already covered in earlier classes as well as your textbook. You may also wish to use the overview of the British Empire that is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
  • Ask students to look at this late nineteenth century map of the British Empire. Have students note which continents had a British colonial presence at the time this map was drawn in 1897. Next, ask students to read through the list of territories which were part of the British Empire in 1921. Again, ask students to note which continents had a British colonial presence that year. Both the map and the list of territories are available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
  • Ask students to read the history of British involvement in Burma available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
  • Introduce students to Eric Blair, the man who would take the pen name George Orwell. You may wish to do so by reading the background information above to the class, or by reading a short biography of the writer available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. Explain that Orwell would spend five years in Burma as an Indian Imperial Police officer. This experience allowed him to see the workings of the British Empire on a daily and very personal level.
Activity 2. The Reluctant Imperialist

Ask students to read George Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant" available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Center for the Liberal Arts. Ask students to take notes as they read of their first impressions, questions that may arise, or their reactions to the story. Ask them to also note any metaphors, symbolism or examples of irony in the text.

  • Ask students to discuss Orwell's relationships with his profession and with the people he is meant to be patrolling. Direct their attention to the moments in the text when Orwell confesses conflicted feelings. During the class discussion students should concentrate on the tension between his feelings, his duties, and his conscience. Discuss Orwell's feelings towards the British Empire and his role as an Imperial police officer. Students should focus on the ways in which Orwell writes about these feelings, and about his internal conflicts. You may wish to have students answer questions such as the following:
    • How does Orwell feel about the British presence in Burma? How does he feel about his job with the Indian Imperial police? What are some of the internal conflicts Orwell describes feeling in his role as a colonial police officer? How do you know?
    • He wrote and published this essay a number of years after he had left the civil service. How does Orwell describe his feelings about the British Empire, and about his role in it, both at the time he took part in the incident described, and at the time of writing the essay, after having had the opportunity to reflect upon these experiences? Ask students to point to examples in the text which support their view.
    • What did Orwell mean by the following sentence: It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism -- the real motives for which despotic governments act.
  • Discuss the following passages and what they tell us about Orwell's conflicted feelings towards the project of empire and the people who have been colonized. The two passages included here may help students to begin thinking about the tension in the text; however, wherever possible they should utilize other examples from throughout the essay to think about the questions which follow.
    All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos—all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East… All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum*, upon the will of the prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.
    . * In saecula saeculorum is a liturgical term meaning "for ever and ever".
  • Discuss how Orwell writes about his conflicted feelings. Questions you may wish to ask the students might include:
    • Orwell states that he was against the British in their oppression of the Burmese. However, Orwell himself was British, and in his role as a police officer he was part of the oppression he is speaking against. How can he be against the British and their empire when he is a British officer of the empire?
    • What does Orwell mean when he writes that he was "theoretically… all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors." Why does he use the word "theoretically" in this sentence, and what does he mean by it?
    • How does this "theoretical" belief conflict with his actual feelings? Does he show empathy or sympathy for the Burmese in his description of this incident? Does he show a lack of sympathy? Both? Ask students to focus on the kind of language Orwell uses. How does he convey these feelings through his use of language?
    • Does Orwell believe these conflicting feelings can be reconciled? Why or why not?
    • What does he mean by "the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East"?
  • Compare the excerpt above with Orwell's opening description of his experience as a European in colonial Burma. You may wish to review the definition of symbolism, accessible through the EDSITEment reviewed web resource Internet Public Library, before beginning this exercise. Again, the two passages included here may help students to begin thinking about the tension in the text; however, they should utilize examples from throughout the essay to think about the questions which follow.
    I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.
  • Knowing that Orwell had sympathy for the position of the Burmese under colonialism, how does it make you feel to read the description of the way in which he was treated as a policeman?
  • Why do you think the Burmese insulted and laughed at him?
  • The first sentence of this paragraph is "In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people- the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me." What does he mean when he says he was "important enough" to be hated?
  • As a colonial police officer Orwell was both a visible and accessible symbol to many Burmese. What did he symbolize to the Burmese?
  • Orwell was unhappy and angry in his position as a colonial police officer. Why? At whom was his anger directed? What did the Burmese symbolize to Orwell?
Activity 3. The Price of Saving Face

Orwell states "As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him." Later he says "… I did not want to shoot the elephant." Despite feeling that he ought not take this course of action, and feeling that he wished not to take this course, he also feels compelled to shoot the animal. In this activity students will be asked to discuss the reasons why Orwell felt he had to kill the elephant.

  • Ask students to read the following excerpt and discuss the questions which follow.
    It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone … The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probably that some of them would laugh. That would never do.
  • Orwell repeatedly states in the text that he does not want to shoot the elephant. In addition, by the time that he has found the elephant, the animal has become calm and has ceased to be an immediate danger. Despite this, Orwell feels compelled to execute the creature. Why?
  • Orwell makes it clear in this essay that he was not a particularly talented rifleman. In the excerpt above he explains that by attempting to shoot the elephant he was putting himself into grave danger. But it is not a fear for his "own skin" which compels him to go through with this course of action. Instead, it was a fear outside of "the ordinary sense." What did Orwell fear?
  • In colonial Burma a small number of British civil servants, officers and military personnel were vastly outnumbered by their colonial subjects. They were able to maintain control, in part, because they possessed superior firepower -- a point made clear when Orwell states that the "Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against (the elephant)." Yet, Orwell's description of the relationship between the Burmese and Europeans indicates that the division of power was not necessarily that simple. How did the Burmese resist their colonial masters through non-violent means? Ask students to show examples from the text to support their ideas.
  • Ask students to explain how they would feel and what they would do were they in Orwell's position.
Activity 4. Reading Between the Lines
  • Ask students to read the following passages from the essay, which they should then use as a jumping off point for answering the following questions. Answers may be supplemented with other examples from the text. You may wish to review the definitions of metaphor, irony, and connotation and denotation that are available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library before asking students the questions which follow.

    Metaphor
    But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd… They were watching me as they would watch 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. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it ...
  • In this passage Orwell uses a series of metaphors: "seemingly the lead actor," "an absurd puppet," "he wears a mask," "a conjurer about to perform a trick." as well as comparing the colonial official to a "posing dummy." Ask students to examine this series of metaphors individually as well as collectively in order to find the overarching metaphor for the entire incident.
  • If Orwell is "seemingly the lead actor," who is the audience? What is the 'part' he is playing?
  • If he is "an absurd puppet," then who is the puppeteer? Does Orwell as the puppet have only one person or group pulling his strings, or is there more than one puppet master?
  • How are the metaphors of the "absurd puppet" and the "posing dummy" similar?
  • How does his description of himself seemingly the lead actor make this metaphor similar to the "absurd puppet" of the next phrase?
  • How is Orwell's description of the colonial official as 'wearing a mask' similar to his own part in this situation as the "lead actor"?
  • Each of these metaphors has a theatrical basis. In the following paragraph he even states: "The crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last, breathed from innumerable throats." What is the 'theater' in which this 'scene' is being 'played'? What is the 'play'?

How does Orwell use metaphors in order to describe a people and a situation geographically and culturally unfamiliar understandable to his readers?

Irony

    …The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.
  • When irony is employed by a writer the true intent of his or her words is covered up or even contradicted by the words that are used. Where is irony employed in this excerpt, and what is Orwell's true intent?
  • The use of irony often also presumes there being two audiences who will read or hear the delivery of the ironic phrase differently. One audience will hear only the literal meaning of the words, while another audience will hear the intent that lies beneath. Who are the two audiences to whom Orwell is speaking?
Connotation and Denotation

In this section a series of sentences and phrases will be supplied which should provide examples for students to discuss the differences between the connotative and denotative meanings. Explain that denotative meanings are generally the literal meaning of the word, while connotative meanings are the "coloring" attached to words beyond their literal meaning. For example, the "army of people" Orwell refers to in his essay bring to mind not only a large group of people, but also a military and oppositional force. Ask students to explain the connotative and denotative meanings of the following words or phrases using this organizational chart, or its online interactive equivalent.

  • One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening.
  • It was a poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf, winding all over the steep hillside.
  • I marched down the hill, looking and feeling a fool, with the rifle over my shoulder and an ever-growing army of people jostling at my heels.
  • They were watching me as they would watch 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.
  • He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.
Activity 5. Persuasive Perspectives

Orwell was both an accomplished and a prolific essayist whose work covered a large number of topics. Many of his essays are written as third person commentaries or reviews, such as his "Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels." Orwell often chose to include himself in his essays, writing from a first person perspective, such as that employed in one of his most famous essays, "Politics and the English Language."

In these works Orwell uses the first person perspective as a rhetorical strategy for supporting his argument. For example, he opens his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" with the following lines:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language- so the argument runs- must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism … Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

In the paragraph which follows the above excerpt Orwell switches from the first person plural to the first person singular. By the second paragraph, however, he has already included his audience in his argument: we cannot do anything; our civilization is decadent. If we disagree with these sentiments, then we are ready to follow Orwell's argument over the following ten pages.

While he does not use the inclusive "we" in "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell's use of the first person perspective is a rhetorical strategy. Discuss with students Orwell's decision to utilize the first person perspective rather than the third person perspective. You might ask question such as:

  • How does seeing the incident through both the eyes of Eric Blair, the young colonial police officer, and George Orwell, the reflective essayist, support Orwell's argument?
  • How does the story change by having the narrator not only present, but active, in the action of the story?
  • How does the use of the first person perspective create a sense of sympathy or understanding for Orwell's position?
  • If time permits you may wish to ask students to re-write a section of "Shooting an Elephant" from a different perspective- such as in the third person. What is gained by this shift in perspective? What is lost?

Assessment

Ask students to write a short essay about one of the following two topics. Students should be sure to support their answers with examples from the text.

  • Explain Orwell's use of language, and of rhetorical tools such as the first person perspective, metaphor, symbolism, irony, connotative and denotative language, in his commentary on the colonial project. How does Orwell use language to bring his audience into the immediacy of his world as a colonial police officer?
  • The litany of examples of cruelties, insults and moral bankruptcy extend from the Buddhist priests, to the market sellers, the referee, the young British officials who declare the worth of the elephant far above that of an Indian coolie, to Orwell himself. While this essay contains anger and bitterness, is not simply a nihilistic diatribe. In what ways did the project of empire affect all parties involved in the shooting of an elephant?

Extending The Lesson

  • George Orwell wrote a second essay called A Hanging about his time as a police officer with the Indian Imperial Police. In addition, Orwell's first novel, Burmese Days, give a fictionalized account of his time in Burma. The essay and the novel are available through the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource Internet Public Library.
  • George Orwell was not the only writer to discuss imperialism in his work. Another well known British author, Rudyard Kipling, also made imperialism the focus of some of his works, and the backdrop to many others. Both Orwell and Kipling were born in India to English parents (Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865), and both returned to India after their educations. Despite similar backgrounds their descriptions of empire and their ideas on the moral foundations of the project of empire were quite different. Have students investigate the views of empire by each of these authors through a comparative reading of Orwell's Shooting an Elephant and Kipling's famous poem urging American imperialism in the Philippines, The White Man's Burden. Kipling's poem is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed web resource, History Matters.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Essay
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
Authors
  • Jennifer Foley, NEH (Washington, DC)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media