Peer Pressure in "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell


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Andrew Lansley once said “Peer pressure and social norms are powerful influences on behavior, and they are classic excuses.” We often find ourselves caught in the midst of what we know is right and what others expect of us, which can sometimes lead us down the wrong path. In “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell reveals the truth of peer pressure by presenting a time of conflict in order to show that a person is willing to abandon strongly held values for the sake of image.

As a person grows, they learn to develop their own morals and understanding of the world and ideally, would follow them even in the presence of others. At the start of the text, the narrator has “already made up [his] mind that imperialism was an evil thing” and felt consumed by an “intolerable sense of guilt” at the brutal actions of his government (Orwell 2). His morality is strong enough to recognize the wrongdoings and exert some level of compassion toward the natives. However, the narrator proclaims to be “young and ill-educated,” living in an “utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East” (2). The British government seemingly oppresses even its own people. This dictatorial behavior controls every willing soul by placing them in a groupthink mindset. The narrator, like the natives around him, is living in a state of oppression that he doesn’t identify until much later, but has still attempted to develop his own moral code out of humanity and compassion.

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As the number of eyes on the narrator increases, so does his willpower weaken as he feels the pressure to uphold his image of authority and power. Throughout the text, the narrator has been resolved to his own moral codes as he had only sent for the rifle in a show of defense; however, he begins to realize that “with the magical rifle in [his] hands, [he] was momentarily worth watching” (7). His mindset shifts as he considers their “their two thousand wills pressing [him] forward, irresistibly” (7). While the narrator has an immense hate for the control his government exercises over the powerless natives, he is allowing the natives to exercise a form of control over him as well, whether he knows it or not. He begins to battle with himself and considers the danger he is in, but all that he can think about is “the watchful yellow faces behind” him (9). Their presence is pressuring him to abandon his sense of self as well as put himself in danger in order to uphold his image of authority, just for the sake of being liked.

In human nature, there is a subconscious desire to please those that look up to us, even if only for a short moment of glory and adoration. The moment of instant gratification ends, and the narrator looks on, wanting only to “put an end to that dreadful noise” (12). He has begun to experience remorse as the pressure disappears and his sense of self returns. Afterwards, the narrator begins to reflect upon his decision as “there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant” (14). As time goes on, the narrator listens to these discussions and the division in opinion as he begins to question himself. Even now, he wonders “whether any of the others grasped that [he] had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” (14). He has finally learned the power of peer pressure and its impact on us all. He may also finally have some perspective on the real nature of oppression and willpower.

Andrew Lansley once said, “Peer pressure and social norms are powerful influences on behavior, and they are classic excuses.” One person’s actions do not justify another’s behavior. Those around us influence us more than we seem to admit, but in the end, our mistakes can’t be undone. It’s how we acknowledge those mistakes that matters.

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