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.”
Colonialism Quotes in Shooting an Elephant
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.