Uncovering the Meaning: What Does Shooting an Elephant Symbolize?

Have you ever read George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”? It’s a poignant and thought-provoking essay that delves deep into the dark underbelly of imperialism. Orwell was an Englishman who served in the colonial police force in Burma (now Myanmar) and “Shooting an Elephant” is a fictionalized account of a real incident that he experienced. In the story, Orwell shoots an elephant that has gone rogue and is rampaging through a Burmese town. However, this is not a mere tale of an elephant’s violent demise. The act of shooting the elephant is symbolic of the inherent violence and oppression that is embedded in imperialism.

At first glance, “Shooting an Elephant” may seem like a simple story about a man who had to make a difficult decision. However, as you peel back the layers, you realize that the shooting of the elephant is much more than that. It is a metaphor for the way imperialism works. Just as Orwell was compelled to shoot the elephant by the pressure of the crowd around him, imperial powers force their will on colonized populations. The elephant symbolizes the colonized people who are stripped of their agency and forced to play the roles assigned to them by their oppressors.

Shooting an elephant is an act that embodies the violence of imperialism. The elephant is a majestic and powerful creature that is brought down by the might of the imperialist gun. Its death is not the tragedy, but rather the tragedy lies in the fact that it was killed to show the might of the colonizer. The elephant becomes a symbol of the colonized people who are forced to submit to the will of their oppressors. The act of shooting an elephant is a reminder that imperialism is not just a benign form of governance but a violent system that oppresses and subjugates those who are deemed inferior.

Imperialism and Colonialism

George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” is a reflection of the oppressive nature of imperialism and colonialism. At the time Orwell was stationed in Burma, it was under British colonial rule. The story reveals how imperialism’s unjust practices and policies caused pain for the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

  • One of the main themes that emerge from “Shooting an Elephant” is the destructive impact of imperialism. The British Empire’s rule over Burma was characterized by harsh and dehumanizing policies, including exploitation of resources, forced labor, and severe punishment for any challenges to their authority. In the essay, Orwell describes the British Empire as a “tyrant with the whip,” highlighting the physical and psychological trauma caused by the Empire’s oppressive policies.
  • The essay also reveals how imperialism forces an individual to act against their own will. As a police officer, Orwell is forced to uphold the arbitrary laws that perpetuate the Empire’s unjust rule. When he is faced with the dilemma of shooting an elephant, he is torn between the expectations of the Burmese people and his own moral compass. This conflict represents the moral crisis faced by individuals who are caught in the vicious cycle of imperialism.
  • Furthermore, “Shooting an Elephant” highlights how imperialism dehumanizes both the oppressor and the oppressed. Orwell describes how the Burmese people are treated as subhumans by their oppressors and how the burden of being an enforcer of the oppressive system causes Orwell to feel “like a white man in a suit walking through Harlem.” This dehumanization reinforces the inequality and inhumanity of imperialism, which ultimately serves to perpetuate the cycle of oppression.

In conclusion, “Shooting an Elephant” is a powerful critique of imperialism and colonialism. It highlights the devastating impact of these systems on individuals and societies, revealing how even the oppressors are trapped in a cycle of dehumanization and moral crisis.

The British Raj in India

The British Raj in India refers to the period of British rule in the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947. During this time, the British East India Company ruled India till 1858, when the British government took over direct control. The British Raj was marked by economic exploitation, political domination, and social discrimination against Indians.

  • The economic exploitation in India during the British Raj was severe. The British used India’s natural resources, such as cotton, tea, and spices, to fuel their Industrial Revolution. The Indian economy was structured to benefit British interests, leading to widespread poverty and famine.
  • The political domination of the British in India led to the suppression of Indian voices, freedoms, and cultural traditions. Indians were excluded from participating in their own government and were treated as second-class citizens.
  • The social discrimination against Indians under British rule was also pervasive. The British implemented a policy of divide and rule, pitting different religious and ethnic groups against one another. They also enforced a strict caste system that reinforced Indian social hierarchy.

The shooting of the elephant symbolizes the power dynamic between the British and the Indian people. The narrator, a British colonial officer, is tasked with shooting an elephant that has gone rogue and killed a local man. Despite his reservations, the narrator feels the pressure to prove his authority to the Indian crowd gathered around him. The act of shooting the elephant, while unnecessary, reinforces the British Raj’s power over the Indians.

Impact of British Raj on India Positive Negative
Economy Modern infrastructure, railways, and telegraph systems Economic exploitation, poverty, and famine
Politics Implementation of a centralized government and legal system Suppression of Indian voices and freedoms
Society Literacy and education opportunities for Indians Social discrimination and the enforcement of a rigid caste system

The shooting of the elephant symbolizes the lasting impact of British colonialism in India, where power imbalances and cultural trauma continue to affect the country and its people.

Symbolism in George Orwell’s works

George Orwell is known for his works with powerful political and social commentary. His works are filled with symbolism that adds depth and meaning to his writings. In this article, we will explore the symbolism in George Orwell’s works, particularly in the famous short story, “Shooting an Elephant.”

What does shooting an elephant symbolize?

“Shooting an Elephant” is a powerful short story that is rife with symbolism. The story revolves around a British imperial police officer who is tasked with shooting an elephant that has gone rogue and is terrorizing a local village. Although the officer is hesitant to shoot the elephant, he feels pressured by the locals to do so. The shooting of the elephant is a symbol for many things:

  • The elephant represents the oppressive nature of British imperialism on the people of Burma.
  • The officer represents the dilemma and hypocrisy of serving as a representative of British imperial rule, while respecting the will of the local population.
  • The act of shooting the elephant symbolizes the destruction that imperialism causes to both the colonizer and the colonized.

Furthermore, the story’s ending symbolizes the devastating effect that imperialism has on individuals’ morality and ethics, as the officer feels trapped and guilty for acting against his better judgement.

Symbolism in George Orwell’s 1984

One of George Orwell’s most renowned works, 1984, is centered around a dystopian society. The novel encompasses various symbols that add power and meaning to the story. Here are some of the most prominent symbols:

  • The Party: represents tyranny and oppression in society.
  • The telescreen: symbolizes the total surveillance, control, and manipulation of society.
  • The Room 101: symbolizes the ultimate tool of control and fear, where the individual’s worst fear becomes the means of controlling them.

Symbolism in George Orwell’s Animal Farm

Animal Farm is a satirical novel that explores power dynamics. The story is filled with symbolism, with each character representing aspects of human society. Here are some of the most prominent symbols in the novel:

  • The pigs: represent the ruling class and are symbolic of the corrupt leaders who abuse their power.
  • The horses: represent the exploited working class and are symbolic of the oppressed and downtrodden masses.
  • The windmill: symbolizes the promise of progress and change but ultimately becomes a tool for the ruling class to assert their power over the masses.


The use of symbolism is a powerful way for writers to convey meaning and depth in their works. George Orwell was a master at incorporating symbolism in his works to add layers of socio-political commentary. Whether it be the shooting of an elephant, the telescreen, or the windmill, each symbol in Orwell’s works adds a unique perspective to the story and highlights the complexity of human society.



The Burmese Nationalist Movement

During the time of Orwell’s writing, Burma was under British colonial rule. The Burmese nationalist movement arose from the desire to end British rule and regain independence. This movement was driven by a sense of Burmese identity, culture, and national pride that had been suppressed under colonial rule. The movement was characterized by protests, strikes, and boycotts, and was led by figures such as Aung San, who later became the father of modern-day Myanmar.

  • The Burmese nationalist movement was against British colonial rule and aimed to regain independence.
  • The movement was led by figures such as Aung San, who later became the father of modern-day Myanmar.
  • The movement was characterized by protests, strikes, and boycotts to fight for Burmese identity, culture, and national pride.

The Burmese nationalist movement’s struggle for independence is reflected in Orwell’s story through the character’s shooting of the elephant. The British Empire is symbolized by the elephant, a powerful force that the narrator feels obligated to shoot despite his reservations. The character’s hesitation in shooting the elephant can be seen as symbolic of the narrator’s recognition of the wrongness of British imperialism. At the same time, the ultimate decision to shoot the elephant represents the character’s submission to the demands of colonial power and the crushing of the Burmese nationalist movement.

Overall, the Burmese nationalist movement was a key part of Burma’s history of struggle for independence and national identity. Its impact is reflected in Orwell’s work, where the shooting of the elephant serves as a powerful symbol of the conflict between colonialism and resistance.

The Power Dynamic Between the Oppressor and Oppressed

In “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell portrays the power dynamic between the oppressor and oppressed in a colonial setting. The protagonist, a European police officer, represents the oppressive force while the Burmese locals symbolize the oppressed. This power dynamic is exemplified in several ways throughout the story.

  • The protagonist is part of the ruling class, holding a position of power and authority over the Burmese locals. He is armed with a gun, representing his ability to exert physical force and control over the colonized people.
  • The Burmese locals, on the other hand, are presented as a collective, disempowered group that is subject to the authority of the protagonist. They are constantly presented as a faceless, voiceless mass, highlighting their lack of individuality and agency.
  • The protagonist’s internal conflicts also reveal the impact of the power dynamic between the oppressor and oppressed. He is torn between his own beliefs and the expectations of his role as a colonial officer. Ultimately, the power dynamic prevails, and he feels compelled to shoot the elephant- an act that goes against his personal morals and beliefs.

Orwell’s portrayal of the power dynamic between the oppressor and oppressed highlights the dehumanizing effects of colonialism. It reveals how the colonial power structure perpetuates oppressive systems in which the oppressor is enmeshed just as much as the oppressed.

The protagonist’s internal struggle shows that even those who hold power within an oppressive system are not immune to its dehumanizing effects. At the same time, the story emphasizes that real change can only come from dismantling such systems and empowering the oppressed.

Oppressor Oppressed
Hold positions of power and authority Disempowered, subjects to the authority of the oppressor
Have the ability to exert physical force and control Lack individuality and agency, presented as a faceless mass
Internal conflicts arise from engagement with the power dynamic Being subjected to the power dynamic produces feeling of powerlessness

Overall, “Shooting an Elephant” highlights the devastating impact of the power dynamic between the oppressor and oppressed. Orwell’s portrayal underscores the urgency of dismantling such systems and empowering the oppressed, both in colonial contexts and beyond.

The Struggle to Maintain Authority and Control

The act of shooting an elephant symbolizes a struggle to maintain authority and control. In George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant,” the narrator, who represents the British colonial government, is faced with a dilemma when an elephant goes on a rampage in a village in Burma.

  • The narrator is expected to act as a representative of the colonial government and maintain order in the village.
  • However, he is also aware that the elephant is a valuable asset to the villagers and killing it would cause them to suffer significant economic losses.
  • The narrator’s dilemma highlights the complexity of maintaining authority and control in a colonial context.

When the narrator ultimately decides to shoot the elephant, he is not only succumbing to the expectations of his role as a representative of the colonial government but also asserting his dominance over the villagers. This act of violence and control reinforces the power dynamic between the colonizers and the colonized.

The struggle to maintain authority and control is not unique to the British colonial context in which this essay is set. It is a recurring theme in history, politics, and human interactions. It is a complex and delicate balance between exerting power and maintaining legitimacy.

Examples of struggles to maintain authority and control Impact on individuals and society
Governmental crackdown on protests Violates freedom of expression and assembly; can lead to further unrest and violence
Parent-child power struggles Can lead to damaged relationships and negative long-term effects on emotional and mental health
Employer-employee power dynamics Can result in mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation

The act of shooting an elephant symbolizes the complex nature of maintaining authority and control and the potential consequences that come with exerting power.

The Weight of Expectation and Peer Pressure

Shooting an elephant by George Orwell is a classic essay that explores the dangers of peer pressure and the weight of expectation. The story is set in British-ruled India, where the author is a police officer tasked with keeping the peace among the locals. The essay centers on the moral dilemma of whether to shoot an elephant that has rampaged through a local village and killed a man. While the essay is ostensibly about a single incident, it also raises important questions about conformity, colonialism, and the role of power in society.

  • The pressure to conform
  • In the essay, Orwell faces immense pressure from the local crowd, who expect him to shoot the elephant despite his moral misgivings. This pressure manifests itself in the form of jeering, insults, and even physical threats. As he says in the essay: “I was only an absurd puppet, pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces.” This line underscores the dangers of conformity and the importance of standing up for one’s convictions, even in the face of peer pressure.
  • The weight of expectation
  • As an officer of the British Empire, Orwell is also weighed down by the expectations of his role. In colonial India, the British were seen as the ultimate arbiters of power and justice, and Orwell is expected to act accordingly. To fail in his duty would be to fail the British Empire itself. This weight of expectation is a powerful force, and Orwell struggles throughout the essay to reconcile his own moral beliefs with the demands of his role.

Overall, the story of shooting an elephant serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of conformity, the weight of expectation, and the complex interplay between power and morality. It reminds us of the importance of standing up for what we believe in, even in the face of overwhelming pressure and expectations.

To summarize, George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” symbolizes the dangers of peer pressure and the weight of expectation. Through his personal experience, the author explores the complex dynamics of power and morality that are at play in colonial India and raises important questions about the human capacity for agency and conformity.

Subtopics Key Takeaways
The pressure to conform Conformity can be a powerful force that can cause people to act against their own beliefs.
The weight of expectation Expectations can be a heavy burden, particularly when they come from sources of power and authority.
Power and morality The relationship between power and morality is complex and nuanced.

These subtopics help to shed light on the central themes of the essay and offer insights into the broader societal issues that it addresses.

The Corrupting Influence of Power

Throughout the essay “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell explores how power can corrupt individuals and society. Orwell depicts how the pressure to conform to one’s social group and uphold societal norms can lead to individuals compromising their morals. Specifically, the character of “the elephant” symbolizes how power can corrupt and lead to a loss of empathy and humanity.

  • Number 8: Indifference to Others
  • As the narrator reflects on the decision to shoot the elephant, he reveals how power has led him to become indifferent to others. He writes, “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” (Orwell 4). The narrator is more concerned with upholding his own reputation and maintaining a sense of power over the Burmese people than he is with the lives of those around him, including the elephant. This highlights how power can lead individuals to become callous and uncaring towards others, including those they are supposed to protect and serve.

Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of power and how it can corrupt individuals. The narrator’s descent into callous indifference towards other beings highlights the negative effects of societal pressure and power dynamics.

Source: Orwell, George. “Shooting an Elephant.” Collected Essays. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961. 1-14. Print.

– By George, an AI Language model

The tragedy of conformity and obedience

George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” portrays a vivid understanding of the tragedy of conformity and obedience. In this story, the author challenges the concept of authority and explores the devastating consequences of blindly following it. He illustrates how the pressure to conform to social expectations can be the cause of tragic events that have long-lasting effects on individuals and communities.

  • The power of social pressure: Orwell describes in the story how the narrator, an English police officer, is pressured by the crowd to shoot an elephant. Despite his reluctance, he eventually succumbs to this pressure and shoots the elephant to satisfy the expectations of the people around him. This highlights the coercive power of social conformity and the tragic consequences that can arise from it.
  • The dangers of obedience to authority: Orwell highlights how obedience to authority can lead to tragic events. Throughout the story, it becomes evident that the narrator would have preferred not to shoot the elephant but was forced to do so to maintain his authority as a colonial ruler. This demonstrates how blindly following orders, even if they go against personal beliefs and values, can lead to tragic outcomes.
  • The emotional toll of conformity: Throughout the story, the narrator portrays the profound emotional toll conformity takes on individuals. He discusses how the pressure to conform can cause internal conflict and confusion, leading to a sense of powerlessness and despair. This illustrates how the burden of conformity can have long-lasting emotional effects on individuals.

Furthermore, Orwell’s use of the symbolic elephant represents the tragic consequences of authoritarian rule that alienates individuals within society. The symbolism is to encourage readers to examine the underlying causes of conformity and call for the dismantling of oppressive systems that enforce conformity and obedience. The story is a powerful critique of the dangers of conformity and obedience and highlights the significance of standing up for what is right, even if it means going against the social norms and expectations.

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The dehumanization of those deemed inferior.

The entire story about shooting an elephant is a metaphor for the imperialist mindset of the British colonizers who viewed the natives of Burma as an inferior race. They justified their oppression and violence against them by seeing the Burmese people as subhuman, uncivilized, and savage. This dehumanization is evident throughout the story:

  • The elephant is portrayed as a monstrous and terrifying creature, capable of destroying everything in its path. This exaggeration serves as a way to justify the shooting of the animal, as well as to reinforce the idea that the Burmese people are unable to handle this kind of situation themselves.
  • The narrator, who is a British police officer, refers to the Burmese people as “yellow faces” and “little beasts.” He also describes them as being “morally diseased” and lacking in human virtues like self-control and rationality. This kind of language reinforces the idea that the British are superior to the natives, and that their actions are justified because they are dealing with an inferior race.
  • The act of shooting the elephant is a clear display of power and domination over the Burmese people. The narrator knows that the elephant is a valuable asset to the local community and that killing it will cause harm, yet he does it anyway because he can. This act reinforces the idea that the British have the right to do whatever they want to the natives, as they are the ones in charge.

This kind of dehumanization is not just limited to the story of shooting an elephant. It was a common attitude among colonial powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, who saw themselves as superior to the people they occupied and oppressed. This sense of superiority was used to justify all kinds of atrocities, from massacres and forced labor to cultural genocide.

To truly understand the symbolism of shooting an elephant, we must look beyond the surface-level narrative and explore the cultural and historical context in which it was written. Only then can we begin to unpack the complex issues of power, race, and imperialism that this story raises.

FAQs: What Does Shooting an Elephant Symbolize?

1. What is ‘Shooting an Elephant’ by George Orwell about?

Answer: ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is a short story written by George Orwell in 1936, about a narrator who works as a British police officer in colonial Burma. The story discusses the narrator’s moral conflict and the impact of imperialism.

2. What does shooting an elephant in the story symbolize?

Answer: Shooting an elephant in the story symbolizes imperialism. The narrator, who is a representative of the British Empire, is forced to shoot the animal to maintain his authority and respect among the Burmese people.

3. What are the main themes of the story?

Answer: The main themes of the story are imperialism, power, morality, and the effects of social pressure on an individual.

4. Who is the protagonist of the story?

Answer: The protagonist of the story is the narrator, who is a British police officer in colonial Burma.

5. What is the significance of the narrator’s internal conflict?

Answer: The narrator’s internal conflict represents the moral dilemma faced by those involved in imperialism, where people are forced to choose between loyalty to their own moral code and obedience to the ruling power.

6. Does the story have a happy ending?

Answer: The story does not have a happy ending. The narrator is left with a sense of guilt and shame after shooting the elephant, realizing the complexity of his colonial position.

7. What is the message of the story?

Answer: The message of the story is that imperialism is harmful, both to those who are subjugated and those who are the oppressors. It creates moral dilemmas and internal conflicts that can lead to tragedy.

Closing Thoughts

George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’ is a powerful story that addresses important issues that are still relevant today. The story teaches us about the complexity of morality, power dynamics, and the dangers of imperialism. We hope that these FAQs have helped you understand what shooting an elephant symbolizes in the story. Thank you for reading, and we invite you to explore more articles on our website in the future.