Shooting an Elephant

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Performance Theme Analysis

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.
Performance Theme Icon

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 at last, breathed from innumerable throats.” Orwell is constrained by the spectacle of his colonialist stature. His language demonstrates that colonialism is not fueled by genuine needs, duties, or obligations—but rather by the British need to perform the role of colonizer in order to maintain their colonialist power. Like colonialism, shooting the elephant is an act of senseless destruction; it is utterly unnecessary and goes against everyone’s real interests. Still, the colonial system grinds on, simply because each participant feels obliged to fulfill his assigned role within the larger performance. The colonist, Orwell asserts, “wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” In other words, the colonizer is a performer who subsequently adopts, or is overcome by, his dramatic role, which becomes his real identity whether he likes it or not.

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Performance ThemeTracker

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

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

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.