The Symbolic Value in Shooting an Elephant

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In “Shooting an Elephant,” George Orwell presents a story in which he reluctantly kills

an elephant. Orwell is a British police officer who is always teased by the Burmese, who see

him as a representative of the British Empire but fail to realize that Orwell also opposes English

occupation of Burma. One day, Orwell is called to investigate an accident in the marketplace

involving a rampant elephant. Orwell borrows a rifle, which could bring down the elephant,

from his friend. He hopes that he would not have to kill the beast, because he thinks that killing

a working elephant is a hideous shame; however, forced by the crowd and fearing ridicule, he

eventually kills it.

Generally, an elephant represents prosperity and loyalty. In the story, however,

the aggressive elephant symbolizes the powerful British Empire, showing the evil side of

imperialism. At the beginning, Orwell clearly demonstrates that “No one had the guts to raise

a riot” (Orwell 313), which shows that the locals have no ability to resist such a horrible reign

of imperialism. As a police officer, Orwell presents his dislike for colonial Britain by saying

that “imperialism was an evil thing” (313). He sees that imperialism is only going to worsen the

relationships between the occupiers and occupied. Thus, when an elephant demolishes the

marketplace, Orwell uses it to symbolize the British Empire pillaging the economy of Burma.

Watching as a rampant elephant attacks the marketplace, fights an animal, and raids some

shops, the Burmese are powerless to do anything although they wish to stop the mad elephant.

Similarly, by implementing strict laws, the British exploits the freedom of the Burmese, which

the locals cannot withstand.

Imperialism oppresses occupied people by lowering their social status within their

own country. In the story, the owner of the dead elephant is angry because the police officer

has killed his working partner. Yet, the owner could do nothing but grumble, as he is only

Indian. From this, it can be seen that the locals do not have the right to complain because

of their humble social status. In addition, imperialism encourages the occupiers to make

immoral decision in order to maintain their superior status. For example, Orwell, by killing

an elephant, acts against his own principles to prevent looking like a fool. He realizes that he

should allow the elephant to live. Even though he holds a weapon, it is not Orwell’s desire to

shoot an elephant. However, due to the crowd’s expectation, he realizes that he must do so.

Furthermore, the death of the coolie by the elephant makes Orwell feel relaxed, because it

provides the right for the author to kill the elephant. Orwell wonders if anyone will sense his

motive for killing the elephant: to save his pride. The author wants to enhance his image in

front of the Burmese. Although he is forced to impose strict laws, he demonstrates his feelings

against them, because he knows he is forfeiting his freedom while oppressing the Burmese.

Moreover, imperialism enables an inner conflict of Orwell, which he struggles to stay at

his own job or against the British. Orwell claims that he is "all for the Burmese and all against

the British. (317)" He is trapped between the "hatred of the empire [he] served" (317) and the

responsibilities if his job. As a police officer, Orwell is responsible for implementing strict British

rule. Therefore, he is ignored and hated by the Burmese people. He is often a target of mockery

by the Burmese. The natives sneer at the British from a distance and tease them whenever

there is an opportunity. Orwell indicates that he is “momentarily worth watching” (316) only

when he is expected to shoot the elephant.

The tensions between the occupier and occupied appear consistently. For one, Orwell

implies that the British are esteemed more highly than the locals...
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