Shooting An Elephant Symbolism

What are some examples of symbolism in George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant"?

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brandih eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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lit24 | Student

Some of the obvious symbols which are present in this essay by Orwell are:

1. The elephant itself: It is compared to, "a huge and costly piece of machinery." It is symbolic of how the economy of a poor Burmese village functioned under colonial British rule:

It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided.

2. Orwell himself: Throughout the essay Orwell is a living symbol of all that was bad of the colonial British rule, and he himself is aware of it:

The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

3.  The rifle: The rifle is symbolic of the brute force which was at the disposal of the colonial British rulers. In this village in Burma only the British owned and possessed the guns. It was this which enabled them to appear as demi-gods to the natives and rule over them. Orwell symbolically narrates how cruelly he used it to kill a helpless animal not to protect the villagers from harm but only to emphasize his superior status over them:

when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is 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. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

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Shooting an Elephant

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