The narrator George Orwell, who is British police officer stationed in Moulmein, Burmaand, writes in a first-person context. In this period, Europeans face resentment from local Burmese people and are constantly being jeered and humiliated. While he is sensitive to the needs of people, the fact that he is British officer makes him a target since they symbolize the oppressive rule that natives are subjected to. Though natives were not in a position to riot against the British rule, they humiliated them whenever they could by mocking the officers from a safe distance and spitting betel juice on dresses of their female counterparts. Orwell had seen the oppressive nature of the British Empire and was against their rule. However, he also hated the Burmese people for disrespectful way in which they treated him. He was faced with a mental dilemma. On one hand. as an officer of the British Empire his duty was to serve the empire, which he despised due to its tyrannical rule over the natives. On the other hand, he was sympathetic to the condition in which the natives lived but he hated them on personal grounds. He gives an example where they held a match on the football field and he was tripped by one of the natives. The referee, who was also a native, looked the other way and this made the crowd mostly made up of Burmese natives laugh and sneer at him.
Various themes are presented in this story. The first is the theme of imperialism. Orwell has seen the evils that imperialism causes to those whom the rule is imposed on. He has seen prisoners of war languishing in stinking cages and scarred bodies of long-term prisoners, who have been flogged by bamboo sticks. The position he holds gives him a front row seat to the tribulations that the natives face under the imperial rule. The conflict has him sacrificing his freedom and his state of mind in his position. As a police officer he subjects the natives, the same people he is sympathetic to, to the tyrant rule of the empire. Imperial rule is one, which degrades those who are subjected to it. People are forced to live in poor living conditions in their own country.
Burmese people live in squalor. Their houses are nothing but little huts made of bamboo, and roofs are made of palm leafs. These are poor living conditions, which the British Empire has enforced on Burmese people in an effort to rule over them. Imperialist rule gives upper hand to oppressors, in this case the British, who are forced to make selfish decisions in order to secure their rule over the natives. Such is the case with Orwell, who is forced to kill the mad elephant even though he would have chosen not to (Larkin 221). Imperialism destroys enforcers by denying them their freedom. They are forced to make decisions that not only affect their subjects but affect them as well. Orwell is made a subject to Burmese people when he is forced to shoot the elephant against his better judgment just to save face. He realizes that when those in law turn oppressive, he will destroy his own freedom (Runciman 182).
The theme of loss of freedom is also represented in the story. When imperialists invade Burma, they restrict the freedom of natives in order to rule over them with ease. However, when they do this, they are restricting their own freedom since they cannot indulge in any actions that might cause a revolt of the natives. Due to this effect, they are subjected to the same conditions as the subjects they rule over. They are expected to act in a particular way and when they do not, it shakes the fear that the natives have of their oppressors. When they see that their oppressors have a weakness and are vulnerable, it may invoke a revolt among the natives, and this will shake the foundation and the rule that the conquerors have over the natives. The narrator is affected by afflictions of the natives as a result of the British regime. However, he cannot act on his feelings, instead he is forced to put up a facade (Larkin 224). While he looks to be acting of his own free will, he is actually doing the bidding of natives by killing the elephant because this is what is required of him (Larkin 224). When the owner of the elephant finds out about its death, he is furious but cannot do anything about it. This shows that Burmese people did not have any rights of their own. The owner of the elephant could not press any charges due to the fact that he was Indian (Orwell 81).
Another theme present in the story is that of resentment. This is evident on both sides: the natives resent their European conquerors. They see them as the cause of the poverty they are living in and their lack of freedom. These foreigners have imposed their rule over the natives by taking over their land, leaving them in a desperate situation. Resentment from the conquerors is also evident in narrator’s story. He is offended by the ill-treatment the locals subject him to. They sit outside the town and jeer and hurl insults at European soldiers. While they can do little to their conquerors, they found means to humiliate them. They spit juice on female Europeans. The narrator has an incident in which he is tripped in the football field but the referee, who is a native himself, turns a blind eye further adding to the resentment of the narrator.
The theme of partiality/prejudice is also evident in the story. When news of the dead elephant reach other British soldiers, they think that it is a shame that the narrator Orwell had to kill it just because it killed a coolie. To them, the elephant is worth much more than the coolie. In the history of colonization of Burma, British soldiers did not associate themselves with the natives, and they regarded them with little respect if any. They saw British people as superior in every sense of the word. While the narrator is sympathetic to the needs of people, other soldiers are not much inclined to their needs or wrongs that the imperialist rule is causing to the natives.
The elephant in the story is a symbol of the British Empire. The elephant is a powerful creature, and it is not advisable to cross its path, especially in the situation where it is mad. The elephant trampled all over the market place eating some of the fruit and vegetables on the stands. The strength of the elephant represents that of the British Empire, which invaded Burma and took over the economy. The freedom of natives practically bringing their lives to a standstill then overhauls it and has the natives living around the rule of the Empire. The elephant kills the native (coolie), who gets in his way. This represents the consequences the natives face when they cross their conquerors.
The idea of colonization of weak countries by those considered as super powers was not popular with the colonies and some of the colonizers (Johnson 153). Imperialists are held captive by their own policies that they use to rule over the colony they conquer. The narrator, Orwell, becomes aware of this factor when he is faced with the choice of leaving the elephant alive or killing it in the field where it is quietly grazing. Armed with a gun and deliberating on his choices, he then sees the crowd of people "I could feel their two thousand will pressing me forward (Orwell 79)", who expect him to kill the elephant. He does not want to make a fool of himself in front of the crowd. The same position that the narrator is put in is the same one that regime’s officers are subjected to when they take over a colony. Officers are required to enforce the rules and regulation of their regimes, while on the other hand, they are resentful of the consequences that these policies bring both for them and for the natives. They are made subjects of policies they themselves do not believe in.
The story foreshadows the end of colonial rule as it shows cracks in the regime rule. It is clear that the conquered as well as the conquerors both suffer due to this oppression. Officers do not have faith in policies they are enforcing on the natives. This is evident from the older generation, who are not convinced by the effects of the regime. Many colonialists, who invaded and occupied their colonies believed that by introducing their policies they were making their lives better. The truth, however, was that they were denying the natives their freedom and their own (colonizer's) freedom as well. Imperialistic rule is oppressive and was only intended to exploit resources of these lesser countries. Many colonizers felt it was up to them to bring civilization to these desolate lands. The question that remains unanswered over the years is whether colonizers, in this case the British Empire, ever were in control over the Burmese natives (Johnson 155).