Shooting an Elephant

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The Elephant Symbol Analysis

The Elephant Symbol Icon
The elephant is the central symbol of the story. Orwell uses it to represent the effect of colonialism on both the colonizer and the colonized. The elephant, like a colonized populace, has its liberty restricted, and it becomes violently rebellious only as a response to being shackled. Orwell, a colonizer, feels a similar ambivalence towards the elephant as he does towards the Burmese locals. While he recognizes that both are harmless and peaceful and have suffered wrongs at the hands of others, he still perpetuates barbarous treatment of both, simply in order to uphold an irrational standard of imperial behavior. He kills the elephant simply because he fears that he would be humiliated if he failed to do so. In much the same way, colonial savagery perpetuates itself simply because colonists fear that they would look weak or ridiculous if they acted less inhumanely. Orwell further humanizes the elephant by referring to it throughout the story with the pronoun “he,” rather than “it.”

The Elephant Quotes in Shooting an Elephant

The Shooting an Elephant quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Elephant. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Colonialism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harvest Books edition of Shooting an Elephant published in 1970.
“Shooting an Elephant” Quotes

And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that 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.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Elephant
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

As he walks through the town, wondering whether the story of the rampaging elephant is true or not, the narrator comes across a coolie, or laborer, who has been trampled to death by the elephant. Realizing that the elephant, and its danger, is very much real, Orwell commands a subordinate to fetch him a rifle that is strong enough to kill the beast should it act violently towards him. However, when the townspeople see the gun, they are very excited at the prospect of seeing the elephant killed, as both a spectacle and as a chance for free meat. A crowd of what Orwell gathers to be about 2,000 people follow him to the rice paddies where the elephant is, eager for the excitement of shooting an elephant.

In this quote, Orwell feels at once powerful and powerless. In his hands lies a tool that can kill a beast that has killed a man with one step of its powerful legs. Though when he asked for the gun he did not plan to pull the trigger unless provoked, the expectation of the Burmese townspeople makes him anxious to the point that he now knows he has no choice but to kill the elephant. Despite being an agent of the colonizer (Great Britain), Orwell finds himself being controlled by the people he is supposedly controlling. It is here that Orwell finds the fallacy in colonialism: in attempting to oppress and restrain people deemed "barbarians," the oppressor himself ends up committing barbaric acts of violence—sometimes even against his will. 

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A white man mustn't be frightened in front of "natives"; and so, in general, he isn't frightened. 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.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Elephant
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

When Orwell and the mob of thousands of Burmese town people following him reach the rice paddy, the elephant is grazing and appears to be peaceful. Orwell does not want to shoot the massive beast, but feels anxious about the expectations of the crowd, which is anticipating a bloody spectacle.

In this quote, Orwell feels torn in his emotions: on the one hand, he technically holds power over the Burmese people, and can act as he pleases. On the other hand, it is hard to dismiss the expectations of two thousand people. By committing a violent act against the elephant, he will be asserting his dominance and show that when provoked, he can become dangerous. Asserting this image of himself will perhaps help to reduce the taunts he endures as an agent of the Empire. However, if he fails to properly kill the elephant and is killed himself in the process, his death will be a public spectacle, perhaps even rejoiced by the oppressed people who hate him because he works for Britain. His pride trumps his morals, and he aims his rifle at the elephant to kill it. 

But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Elephant
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:
Finally giving into the pressure he feels from the looming crowd, Orwell crouches and shoots at what he believes to be the elephant's brain (in writing the story, he notes that he likely fired too far forward, a rookie mistake for someone trying to kill an elephant with a gun). The elephant staggers back but does not fall. He shoots again, and the elephant sinks to its knees. In this quote, a third shot finally brings the elephant to the ground. The fact that Orwell tries to kill the elephant when he does not have any idea how to do it painlessly, and ends up doing so in the most excruciating manner for the beast, is a metaphor for the ways in which the British Empire approached colonialism. It colonized regions of the world with different cultures, such as Berma, and ruled them with the brute force the British believed "native" and "barbaric" people deserved in order to be submissive. The result was an unnecessarily excruciating experience for the colonized people, just to fuel the pride of the colonists. 

It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Elephant
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

After the elephant falls to the ground, it continues to breathe laboriously, but it still does not die. Orwell uses his handgun at close range and fires shot after shot into the elephant, but it does not seem to notice the extra bullets. 

In this quote, Orwell takes note of the horror he feels at the sight of the breathing, bloody beast that is mortally wounded but cannot die to end its pain. Orwell realizes then that he has begun something--the death of the elephant--that he cannot seem to finish, but rather must wait for nature, cruelly, to take her course. Orwell feels awfully both for what he has done to the elephant without being specifically provoked, and for looking foolish in front of the expectant crowd for not knowing the correct way to swiftly end the life of the beast. Like with colonialism, the British colonial rule continued to oppress the Burmese people in inhumane ways, without understanding the repercussions of their actions. Instead, they continued to impose violent rule, without ever receiving the submission they hoped for from a people who refused to be silenced by a far-away king. Like Orwell, the British empire began a bloody and violent process that refused to die. 

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The Elephant Symbol Timeline in Shooting an Elephant

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Elephant appears in Shooting an Elephant. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
“Shooting an Elephant”
Colonialism Theme Icon
...reasons behind it. He receives a call from another policeman, informing him that a rogue elephant has been causing damage in the town. Orwell heads toward the affected area. On the... (full context)
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Orwell goes to the neighborhood where the elephant was last spotted, which is one of the town’s poorer districts. He tries to figure... (full context)
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Orwell’s subordinate returns with the gun, and locals reveal that the elephant is in a nearby rice paddy. Orwell walks to the field, and a large group... (full context)
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The crowd reaches the rice paddies, and Orwell spots the elephant standing next to the road. The animal is calmly eating grass. Killing an elephant is... (full context)
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...swelled to over two thousand people, all of whom are excitedly expecting to see the elephant’s demise. Orwell feels as though he is a magician tasked with entertaining them, and realizes... (full context)
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...is his own freedom that he destroys.” Orwell realizes that he committed to killing the elephant the moment he ordered that he be brought a rifle. He entertains the possibility of... (full context)
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...appears “grandmotherly” to him; killing it would be a form of murder. Moreover, killing an elephant is a waste of an expensive commodity. The locals tell Orwell that the elephant has... (full context)
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...can do. He loads the gun, lies on the road, and takes aim at the elephant. The crowd sighs in anticipation. Orwell aims at the elephant’s head—too far forward to hit... (full context)
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The elephant lies on the ground, breathing laboriously. Orwell waits for it to die, but it continues... (full context)
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Orwell’s choice to kill the elephant was controversial. The elephant’s owner was angry, but, as an Indian, had no legal recourse.... (full context)