To follow one’s own personal will or to fulfill a role determined by society and its structures is a decision most individuals face. George Orwell’s, ‘Shooting an Elephant’, from 1936 is an exemplification of this.
The story takes place in Moulmein, in lower Burma, where the narrator describes the circumstances of the British Empire.
Throughout the text, the protagonist is forced to challenge his own perception of free will or not by choosing to shoot an elephant under the pressure of his surroundings. When creating such a story Orwell mainly criticizes imperialism and the dysfunctional power it carries.
It is arguable that the narrator of the short story is a personification of George Orwell himself, since Orwell was deployed in Burma, too.
Thus, the story can be interpreted as the author’s non-fictional reflections of his time in Burma. Additionally, it is evident that the narrator, who is also the protagonist of the story, is a conflicted person.
As seen below, he is stuck between his hatred against the British Empire, which is a result of the things he has experienced as a police officer, and his feelings toward the Burmese people.
“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 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.”
This emotional conflict is an embodiment of the absurd situation the narrator is in. Though he has the authority of the Burmese people and theoretically supports the Empire, he is yet powerless to stop the mistreatment and abuse he receives from these people.
By having a protagonist who is positioned in such a conflicted situation points to the message of criticism of the British Raj that existed at this point in time. Accordingly, Orwell criticizes the paradox of colonialism and the irony of power dynamics that is found in such circumstances.