Symbolism in Orewll's "Shooting an Elephant"

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15 October 2010

"Death of an Elephant": Symbolism in Orwell

As a former business major, whenever I read, whether fiction or non-fiction, I tend to focus too much on the surface meaning—the facts—and I often miss the subtle symbolism and deeper meaning of a piece of literature. As an English major, I am attempting to change, but I am often skeptical of symbolism, fearing that we may be reading too much into an author’s words. For me, an assignment to discuss the symbolism in a piece of writing presents a challenge. George Orwell, however, makes reading between the lines and uncovering symbolism in his essays fairly simple. He gives up importance evidence that his works do contain deeper meaning in “Why I Write” when he says, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism” (Orwell 67). He has been relatively successful because through his use of symbolism he avoids the didactic preaching that most intelligent people dismiss as manipulation or propaganda. The elephant, the most memorable and moving image in his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” must have political significance. The elephant, with its many human characteristics, symbolizes the Burmese people in that it is dominated and oppressed, it rebels against that dominance and oppression, and it dies a slow, agonizing death.

An elephant makes an appropriate symbol for people in general because elephants are similar to humans in a number of ways. In his book When Elephants Weep, Jeffrey Masson tells of elephants having deep humanlike emotions: “from a Kenyan ‘elephant orange’ comes a report of baby African elephants who have seen their families killed by poachers and witnessed the tusks being cut off the bodies. These young animals wake up screaming in the night” (45). The young elephants, it seems, are having nightmares just as young...
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