Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

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Shooting An Elephant Symbolism

What does the elephant symbolize in "Shooting an Elephant"?

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McKinstry Rose eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Orwell uses the elephant metaphor to represent several elements.

1.  It represents a death of his innocence so to speak.  As a young employee representing Britain in a foreign land, he did not first realize the often negative impact his country had upon its subjects.

2. The death of the elephant also symbolizes a rebellion against the rule of the British.  The Burmese people clamor for the elephant's death just as they long to see the death of the huge British Empire's rule in their country.

3.  The idea of the elephant dying slowly in a "world remote," demonstrates the death of British ideals and ultimate power.  Ironically, Orwell sees the British way of life being destroyed not in Britain where humans might mourn their loss but in a far away land where Britain tried to impose its customs upon others.

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merehughes eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I would also answer that the elephant is important because the narrator's actions and situation with the elephant mirror colonial/imperial England's relationship with the Burmanese. The elephant is a work animal in India and Burma, and for the colonial power, the Burmanese are also 'work animals'.

As the above comment mentions, the elephant is potentially dangerous, as are any people oppressed by another, however, by the time the narrator reacts, the danger is no longer present.

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blacksheepunite eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The elephant is the key to the narrative persona's difficulties with his position in the Burmese society. He shoots the elephant for all of the wrong reasons, and, because the elephant is an innocent victim of his ego, the elephant comes to represent the effects of the tension between colonizer and colonized in Burma.

The elephant is a potential danger, but the narrator acts long after the danger has passed. The narrator knows there is no benefit for him in shooting the elephant beyond acting as he is expected. The elephant is also valuable. He sacrifices something beautiful, almost human, and valuable simply to appease the needs of his ego. The elephant's physical size is also important, for without the weapon, the narrator would be no match for it.

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blacksheepunite eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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,...

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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merehughes eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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