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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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What exactly is the significance of the dying elephant to George Orwell's thesis in the essay, "Shooting an Elephant"?

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In “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell reflects on what he refers to as an “enlightening” episode from his time as a policeman in the small town of Moulmein in the British colony of Burma. In the essay, Orwell recounts the events that led to the death of an elephant that had ravaged the local market and killed a Burmese coolie.

Orwell, as the Imperial policeman of the village, was responsible for ensuring the safety of the villagers and was tasked with shooting the rampaging elephant. Orwell’s official position forces him to act, even though he “did not want to shoot the elephant.” Due to the expectations of the two thousand Burmese who had gathered to witness the pachyderm’s fate and Orwell’s determination to “ . . . avoid looking a fool,” he shoots the elephant several times and watches its agonizing death.

The epiphany Orwell experiences during in the moments before he fires the first shots was that “I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East.” This thought demonstrates that Orwell was not simply viewing his situation as the literal death of a beast of burden; in his mind, it was a broader metaphor for the British colonization of Asia.

In this sense, the unfortunate elephant functions as a symbol for everything that George Orwell viewed as reprehensible about British colonialism. Orwell is keenly aware of the hopeless irony of his situation: he is forced into an action he does not want to participate in by the very people he lords over. The explicitly stated thesis of the essay is “ . . . when the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys.” George Orwell uses the story of the elephant to highlight the inevitable moral decay and loss of agency experienced by colonizers when placed in positions of power.

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Good question. The elephant piles multiple meanings upon its back, like a beast of burden. Since Orwell mentions early in the essay that the British Empire is dying, we can assume that the elephant represents the empire and/or all colonial powers: ill, crazed, out of place, harmful to those around it.

It also represents the burden of Orwell, and of the colonial powers. He, and they, have to do unpleasant thing to beings alien to their experience.

The stubborn way in which the elephant clings to life represents the stubbornness of local culture, and, most simply, of biological life. Life is happening, and somehow the colonial/technological mechanisms of the British empire have to make sense of it, in this case by killing it.

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