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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell
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Discuss in detail the significance of the elephant in the story "Shooting an Elephant."

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The narrator is in Burma as an officer of the British government, and the local Burmese do not meet him with kindness. They see him as less of an ordinary person and more of a long-reaching arm of British rule into their country. He grows frustrated with the way he...

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The narrator is in Burma as an officer of the British government, and the local Burmese do not meet him with kindness. They see him as less of an ordinary person and more of a long-reaching arm of British rule into their country. He grows frustrated with the way he is treated: the sneers, the insults, the ridicule.

The elephant that he is summoned to deal with has become agitated from captivity, much like the Burmese people. After breaking its chain and escaping, the elephant (whom the narrator repeatedly refers to as "he" rather than "it," drawing further connections to the Burmese people) has lashed out in violence, destroyed property, and seemingly killed a man.

The narrator doesn't want to kill the elephant; once he tracks him down, the elephant poses no threat to any one and simply stands peacefully eating. He says that "I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him." Yet he looks at the swelling crowd that gathers around him and realizes

The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.

He shoots the elephant in a prideful attempt to save his own image, and he connects this idea to the role Britain plays in the locals’s lives. As they maintain a military presence in this country, they metaphorically have a chain around the freedom of the people who live there, and they long to break free much like the elephant. In their struggle, they lash out just as the elephant did, their pent-up anger spilling over onto whomever crosses their paths. Therefore, the anger they shower onto the narrator is really anger toward the British government. This is literary metonomy; the narrator as an officer represents the whole of the unwanted British presence in Burma.

The locals also want the elephant to die because they have something to gain: meat. Therefore, in this symbolic effort, they come to represent how corrupt power can be as they, too, are willing to inflict horrendous suffering and eventual death in order to better their own circumstances.

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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. 

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