Shooting an Elephant

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Colonialism Theme Analysis

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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 rampage is a result of a life spent in captivity—Orwell explains that “tame elephants always are [chained up] when their attack of “must” is due.” Similarly, the sometimes-violent disrespect that British like Orwell receive from locals is a justified consequence of the restraints the colonial regime imposes on its subjects. Moreover, just as Orwell knows he should not harm the elephant, he knows that the locals do not deserve to be oppressed and subjugated. Nevertheless, he ends up killing the elephant and dreams of harming insolent Burmese, simply because he fears being laughed at by the Burmese if he acts any other way. By showing how the conventions of colonialism force him to behave barbarically for no reason beyond the conventions themselves, Orwell illustrates that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

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Colonialism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Colonialism appears in each section of Shooting an Elephant. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Colonialism Quotes in Shooting an Elephant

Below you will find the important quotes in Shooting an Elephant related to the theme of Colonialism.
“Shooting an Elephant” Quotes

With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator, George Orwell, is a British police officer stationed in the British colony of Burma. Though he is employed by the British Empire, he feels disdain regarding the nature of colonialism and the brutality that it imposes upon the colonized people. However, as a policeman imposing the rules of the colonizing empire, he is consistently taunted by the Burmese people who resent the oppressive British rule.

In this quote the narrator reveals his conflicting feelings regarding colonialism: he is morally opposed to the underlying tenants of the British Empire, but holds the colonized people he feels sympathy for in contempt due to the rudeness with which they treat him, as an agent of the Empire. The narrator posits that any such agent working for the British Empire holds these complicated feelings for the colonizer and the colonized. Though British officers in colonized areas must enforce the rules of the Empire, which are oppressive and brutal, they cannot help feeling resentment and humiliation in response to the oppressed people's hatred. 


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That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

One day, the narrator (Orwell) is given word that there is a rogue elephant rampaging through the local town. He heads into town, where he is given varying accounts as to what the elephant has done and where it is. The stories are so different that Orwell wonders whether the story is true at all, or whether it is just a rumor that has circulated like wild fire. 

In this quote, Orwell stereotypes this scenario based on other instances he experienced during his time in Asia as an officer of the British Empire. He states that a wild story may sound plausible from afar, but when one attempts to come nearer to the truth, none of the details add up and one seems to be even further from the facts. This passing commentary on what he has observed in the East reveals feelings of superiority and distance towards the Burmese people, as this quote implies that the narrator finds this sense of confusion and disorder something inherent to the societies of Asia. Though the narrator claims that his moral virtues lie in favor of the colonized people, his tone and commentary reveals contradicting sentiments favored by supporters of colonization. 

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. 

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. 

And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

Related Characters: George Orwell (speaker)
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

By the afternoon of the elephant's death, the Burmese townspeople have stripped its body of meat. Though the owner of the elephant was very angry that it had been killed, Orwell did not face any repercussions for killing the elephant due to his position of superiority as a British officer.

In this quote, he notes that in retrospect, he was actually happy that the coolie was killed, since he could claim that he killed the elephant in self-defense. Tragically, and ironically, it was due to the death of the coolie that Orwell felt forced to summon the elephant-killing rifle in the first place. He states that his colonist colleagues, like the elephant's owner, did not approve of his choice to kill the elephant; however, their reasoning was that the life of the Burmese coolie it killed was worth less than the value of the elephant. This devaluation of a human life, like Orwell's value of pride over the life of the elephant, is representative of the "barbaric" choices that colonists make in order to preserve propriety and equanimity in an attempt to oppress (supposedly barbaric) colonized peoples. In the colonial hierarchy of morals and values, image and prestige for the Empire comes before the basic human rights (and animal rights) of the colonized society.