Shooting an Elephant

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 numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer 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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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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)
Colonialism Theme Icon
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)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Performance Theme Icon
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)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Principles Theme Icon
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)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Principles Theme Icon
Performance Theme Icon
...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)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Principles Theme Icon
Performance Theme Icon
...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)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Principles Theme Icon
Performance Theme Icon
...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)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Principles Theme Icon
Performance Theme Icon
...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)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Principles Theme Icon
The elephant lies on the ground, breathing laboriously. Orwell waits for it to die, but it continues... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
Power Theme Icon
Principles Theme Icon
Performance Theme Icon
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)