Shooting an Elephant

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Themes and Colors
Colonialism Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Principles Theme Icon
Performance Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Shooting an Elephant, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Orwell uses his experience of shooting an elephant as a metaphor for his experience with the institution of colonialism. He writes that the encounter with the elephant gave him insight into “the real motives for which despotic governments act.” Killing the elephant as it peacefully eats grass is indisputably an act of barbarism—one that symbolizes the barbarity of colonialism as a whole. The elephant’s rebelliousness does not justify Orwell’s choice to kill it. Rather, its…

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“Shooting an Elephant” is filled with examples of warped power dynamics. Colonialism nearly always entails a small minority of outsiders wielding a disproportionate amount of influence over a larger group of local peoples. This imbalance of power in colonialism seems counterintuitive, and Orwell literalizes the imbalance by showing his ability to kill the elephant singlehandedly. But even this distribution of power is not clear-cut: Orwell and the British colonists do not in fact have absolute…

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Orwell’s service in the British Empire places his reasoned principles and his basic intuitions in constant conflict. He recognizes that the empire is tyrannical and abusive, yet he is unable to overcome his visceral contempt for the local villagers who mistreat him. The decisions Orwell makes when confronted with the rogue elephant encapsulate these tensions between his different principles. Orwell could have followed his more humane, ethical impulses and chosen to spare the elephant. However…

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When Orwell stands before the crowd, he likens himself to a performer, rather than a peacekeeper or powerful official. He repeatedly uses metaphorical language to develop this connection. The thousands of gathered Burmese regard him as they would regard “a conjurer about to perform a trick;” he describes how, as he loaded the rifle, “the crowd grew very still, and a deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up…

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