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What does the elephant symbolize in "Shooting an elephant?

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browniez | Student, College Freshman | eNotes Newbie

Posted May 25, 2007 at 12:34 PM via web

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What does the elephant symbolize in "Shooting an elephant?

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merehughes | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

Posted May 25, 2007 at 3:26 PM (Answer #1)

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In "Shooting an Elephant", the Elephant represents the working man since in India and Burma, the elephant is a work animal. It can also be seen to represent the role of the Burmanese to the colonial power - in this analogy; the Burmanese would be the colonial power over the elephant. At the end of the story, the animal takes on definite human characteristics as it dies.

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jamie-wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted May 25, 2007 at 6:18 PM (Answer #2)

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The previous answer is correct, but I would like to add that the elephant is also symbolic of the narrator's conscience. "The narrator’s moral conscience appears in the moment when the corpse of the Burmese crushed by the elephant comes to his attention; the narrator says that the man lay sprawled in a ‘‘crucified’’ posture, invoking all of the poignant and rich symbolism that the term ‘‘crucified’’ offers. The elephant, too, especially in its pain-wracked death, evokes in the narrator feelings of terrible pity, not soothed by his knowledge that he acted within the law. Law, indeed, opposes conscience in ‘‘Shooting an Elephant.’’ The brute fact of Empire, thoroughly institutionalized, is irreconcilable with the individual’s moral analysis of the situation."

There is more on the themes, symbolism, and other literary elements of Orwell's story at the link below.

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blacksheepunite | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted May 26, 2007 at 5:23 AM (Answer #3)

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I'd add one thing to the answers above, both true: the elephant also symbolizes his shame. As a colonist, he occupies a place that he has no right to occupy. He is neither superior nor especially fit to govern. The elephant is like the Burmese people. Large, natural, and apparently needing to be controlled. The entire horrendous situation could have been avoided, and yet the narrative persona mindlessly follows the expectations of others, even though he is hopelessly incompetent. He knows there is no need to act--the elephant is already beginning to calm down when he shoots it. But he doesn't feel as if he can get out of the situation. He has power, but, as Jamie says, not conscience. So he kills an innocent in order to avoid looking like a fool. In killing the elephant, however, he reveals himself a fool. He is the worst kind of authority--someone who acts because they feel compelled to act, not because of an inner conviction, or a commitment to right action.

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