Discuss in details about the significance of the elephant in the story "shooting an elephant"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The elephant of George Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant" carries with it significance for both the Burmese and the British as its death symbolizes the pervasive corruption of imperialism on both sides. For, imperialism corrupts the soul of both the conqueror and the conquered; in both there is a terrible sense of resentment, according to critic Thomas Bertonneau. On the one hand, the imperialist knows that he is being watched, and he must not subject himself to ridicule. It is, as Orwell writes,

...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....Every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

On the other hand, the "natives" are rapacious, and want the flesh of the working elephant, even though they are aware of its worth as a comparative piece of machinery. For, they wish to have a symbolic victim of their own, it seems,

Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds, dead, he would be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possible.

Thus, the anger that the crowd feels towards the narrator as an agent of empire gets deflected to the elephant; like the English, Orwell's team illustrates the futility of the white men's dominion in the East when the shooting of the elephant is done simply so that Orwell woud "avoid looking a fool." The shooting of the elephant is thus congruent with the senseless death of the elephant's victim, and it has solved nothing.

An act of resentment, the shooting of the elephant illustrates the injustice of colonial rule, a rule that corrupts both the imperialists and those colonized because violence is imposed upon both sides. The Burmese cruelty is imposed upon Orwell in retaliation for the British oppression--

The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lockups, the gray, cowed face of the long-term convicts....

This oppression of the Burmese in laughing at him, "clicking their tongues," leaves Orwell with a sense of guilt; however, because he feels guilt, he retaliates in his resentment, too, feeling he must not make a fool of himself and come out with his rifle after the elephant and do nothing. But, like the dying elephant, the British empire will also slowly die.