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Analysis and Interpretation of “Shooting an Elephant”
“Shooting an Elephant” is an essay by George Orwell. It recounts his incredible experiences in India where he served as an imperial officer. Orwell appears to be narrating a tale on his individual life experience in Burma; however, the real theme behind his essay is to create an image of how colonialism influences the way of life of both the inhabitants in the colonized nation and the imperialistic officers. This essay expounds on how Orwell, through a broad utilization of symbolism, uses his actions and an elephant in a journey to depict the utter injustice of imperialism.
After a short description of how the incident commences, Orwell conveys how his primary act is to carry a rifle during the search for an elephant (Orwell 142). Even though Orwell is aware that his rifle is too small a weapon to do any major harm to the gigantic elephant, he decides to carry it as a mark of the authority that he is supposed to represent. This is Orwell’s attempt to express symbolically that the British had arrived in Burma with the idea that they could capture it and then place it under the authority of naïve and youthful officers. The elephant signifies the native inhabitants of Burma while the rifle indicates the young and naïve British officers, who are too minute to make any impact. Continuing his symbolism, Orwell expresses how chains imprison the elephant, just like all other elephants (Orwell 142). This denotes the capture of Burma by the British Empire. The natives are under the observation of the British officers similar to how the elephant is under the observation of both the officials and the inhabitants.
Orwell uses the elephant not only to symbolize the Burmese inhabitants, but also to signify the British Empire. The elephant causes agony to the Burmese by demolishing their marketplace, a hut, and slaying livestock before Orwell finds it at the paddy field (Orwell 142). This is emblematic of the British Empire’s arrival in Burma and abolishment of the inhabitant’s lifestyle. The imperialists forced their way into the people’s means of support and took away their liberty. Orwell seeks the reader’s understanding of the fact that the British are not only after their own earnings but also after the profit of others. This clarifies that the Burmese inhabitants do not have the chance and liberty to labor for their own welfare. They must be dependent on the British officers who have conquered their native land.
After Orwell starts his hunt for the elephant, he becomes conscious of the fact that he has no knowledge of the elephant’s deeds and its present location. The local people present him with many dissimilar accounts and he cannot differentiate between true and false versions. Orwell writes, “A story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes” (Orwell 142). These words portray a deeper, symbolic meaning than a mere reflection of the natives’ different accounts of the elephant’s whereabouts. Orwell is passing on his views regarding the colonizer’s opinion on imperialism. Before their stationing to Burma, youthful British officials believe that it is justified for Britain to colonize foreign lands; however, after they arrive there and are absorbed into the community framework, they no longer share the same belief about imperialism. They acquire a consciousness of the injustice of colonization that Orwell attempts to depict during the course of his essay.
When Orwell reaches the site of the coolie’s killing, the women of the tiny township are all shouting that the sight is unsuitable for the children’s observation. The women do not want the children to observe such a ghastly spectacle (Orwell 143). Using this depiction, Orwell is utilizing the elephant’s killing of the coolie as a representation of colonialism itself, as an inappropriate thing for the children’s viewership.
Orwell gives the reader intense details on the description of the killing of the coolie. With this account, Orwell accomplishes another symbolic event: “The elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back, and ground him into the earth” (Orwell 143). In this excerpt, Orwell is depicting how the elephant, symbolizing Great Britain, is crushing the Burmese people through colonization. Orwell continues the illustration of the coolie’s death with even more horrible details. Eventually, he concludes with a contrast between the gruesome killing of the coolie and the elegant paring of a rabbit (Orwell 143). This is Orwell’s way of symbolizing colonization, which appears decent and humane when viewed from a distance, just like the paring of a rabbit; however, when witnessed at a close range, it is damaging and humiliating. It overpowers the lifestyles of the Burmese people and transforms the young British officials into impermanent watchdogs.
Orwell uses his own individuality to signify the British Empire and its colonial officers when he eventually finds the elephant grazing peacefully in a field. His internal conflict caused by his intended actions is an illustration to the reader that it is impossible for him to assess the elephant by gradually heading towards it. He gives two reasons as to why he cannot shoot the elephant effectively: the impreciseness of his shooting and the steadiness of the “soft mud into which one would sink at every step” (Orwell 146). The symbolic meaning Orwell is trying to impart to the reader is that he is literally sinking into the claws of colonization with every step he is taking. He can no longer make independent decisions; instead, he has become a hostage of imperialism.
Ultimately, the elephant serves as a symbol of the people of Burma and the consequences of colonization on them. Using graphic details, Orwell gives a description of the agony and eventual death of the elephant. The anguish and demise of the injured elephant is an example of prolonged criticism, an unexpected and impulsive appearance of the imperial destruction, which neither can undergo repair nor suppressed graciously and hurriedly. The elephant’s sluggish and excruciating demise signifies the notion that the Burmese people could not hand over their existence to the British colonialists. Even though it seems to be a trailing scuffle, they keep enduring the agony of having their way of life captured by a foreign state.
Orwell, George. "Shooting an Elephant." DiYanni, Robert. Twenty-five great essays. New York: Pearson, 2008. 142-149. Print.