Shooting an Elephant summary and themes

 Shooting an Elephant summary and theme


“Shooting an Elephant,” is an essay by British author George Orwell, first published in the magazine New Writing in 1936. Orwell, born Eric Blair, is world-renowned for his sociopolitical commentary. He served as a British officer in Burma from 1922 to 1927, then worked as a journalist, novelist, short-story writer, and essayist for the remainder of his career, going on to produce celebrated works such as Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949). Before penning this essay, Orwell wrote extensively about his time in Southeast Asia in his first novel, Burmese Days, also published in 1934. This guide refers to the edition of the essay in Orwell’s A Collection of Essays published by Harcourt Publishing in 1946.

At the beginning of the essay, the narrator (apparently Orwell himself) is in a difficult position—caught between his duty and his conscience, between what he is required to do and what he wants to do. Despite his job as a British officer in Burma, he states that he had “already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing” and that he “hated it more bitterly than I could possibly make clear” (148). He explains that he “is hated by large numbers of people” and that he “was an obvious target” (148). Orwell describes a state of stress and pressure, making it clear to readers that he is in an “us versus them” position and inviting them into the conflict. He describes the following events as “enlightening” because they gave him “a better glimpse” into the “real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act” (149).

Early one morning, a Burmese officer calls to let him know “that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar” (149) and asks him to do something. The narrator grabs a rifle, gets on a pony, and heads into town to determine what is going on. Many people stop him along the way to explain that it was “not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one that has gone ‘must’” (149). Although the elephant had been chained up, it managed to break free and escape. Unfortunately, the mahout, the one who would normally wrangle the elephant, was twelve hours away.

The elephant had apparently destroyed property, killed a cow, and turned over a van full of garbage. But after questioning people in town, the narrator could not get the story straight: “That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events, the vaguer it becomes” (150). The narrator then comes upon a hut and finds a dead body. Orwell writes, “He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and could not have been dead many minutes” (150). The narrator assesses the body and sees the man was killed by the elephant. He adds, “Never tell me, by the way, that the dead look peaceful. Most of the corpses I’ve seen looked devilish” (151).

Knowing the elephant killed someone, and it was likely close by, the narrator sends an orderly for another rifle. People start to gather knowing that something is about to happen. Orwell writes, “It was different now that he was going to be shot. It was a bit of fun to them, as it would be to an English crowd; besides they wanted the meat” (151). As the crowd grows, so too does the turmoil over what to do. The elephant and the Burmese people close in on the narrator as he considers the circumstances of the crowd and his duty, conscience, and ego. He writes, “To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible” (153).

He is conflicted as he charges forward, getting closer to the elephant. He writes, “Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal” (153). He continues to go hesitate—assessing the crowd, the elephant’s worth, the dead man’s worth, and his desire not to show fear in front of the native people. He finally shoots the elephant, and the topic of his internal dialogue moves from what he must do to the unease he feels watching the animal die. He writes, “I felt that I had to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die” (155). Despite doing what he was supposed to do as a British officer, something that was legally his right to do, he feels no solace because he realizes he did it solely for appearance.

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Shooting an Elephant Key Figures


George Orwell, born Eric Blair, served in the British military for five years in Burma between 1922 and 1927. Although there is a question of whether “Shooting an Elephant” is a short story or an essay, it presents the corrupting power of British imperialism. The narrator lives daily with the cruelty and hypocrisy of colonialism and tells readers that he does not believe in the colonization efforts and hates his job. Nearly every sentence expresses the narrator’s struggle with his conscience as he seeks to balance compassion, duty, and ego. In the end, he succumbs to the pressure of the crowd and kills the elephant not primarily to protect the village but to not be laughed at.


From 1824 to 1948, the British ruled Burma, now Myanmar. In “Shooting an Elephant,” readers see, in graphic detail, what can happen when greed and the hunger for power override compassion and even rationality. Despite being a British imperial officer, the narrator sides with the native people in the face of imperialism. Yet his position in the colonial system, and the need to appear dominant over an inferior people, cause Orwell to act against his conscience and judgment. Orwell does not hide his disgust at the imperial system, yet he is complicit in it. In the end, he becomes one of its victims alongside the native people.


Under the colonial system, the Burmese people are regarded as poor, uneducated, and inferior to the “white” man. Nevertheless, they direct the sequence of events. They explain the problem to the narrator; they alert him to the dead body; and finally, their excitement and enthusiasm cause the narrator to shoot the elephant. They are subordinate to their imperial masters, yet they have control because the threat of their laughter determines the narrator’s decision.


The elephant has long been revered in many cultures for its stature, its service to humans, and its usually calm, patient nature. Yet the elephant in this essay is in a state of “must” or temporary madness. The creature’s rampage needs to be contained; the narrator is called to action before further destruction occurs. The narrator references the animal’s size and worth. In the face of real danger, he decides to shoot it to stop the danger to life and property. Although the elephant dies, it first rises, reminding the narrator of its power. The death takes so long that it seems the elephant dies on its own terms.

Shooting an Elephant Themes


The British ruled Burma for 124 years. Orwell was British but “was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” (148). This difficult position, stuck between who he is on the outside and what he believes on the inside, persists throughout the essay. The narrator cannot help that he was a white man with privilege just as the Burmese cannot help they were, from the British perspective, uneducated and poor. Orwell’s rage over the circumstances frames the essay. Imperialism becomes almost symbolic, however, as the levels of rule and control shift. When the crowd grows to more than 2,000, the native people become quasi-imperialists over the narrator’s conscience.

From Shakespeare’s plays to today’s video games, violence and death have been treated as a spectacle by people of every age. Just as the Romans used the Coliseum for battle and performance, turning killing into entertainment for the masses, the spectacle of death pervades Orwell’s essay. In “Shooting an Elephant,” the elephant’s killing of a man and the subsequent hunting and death of the enormous beast become a mass spectacle. Although readers might like to believe the narrator kills the animal to save the native people’s lives and property, he does so, in fact, under the pressure of the crowd’s delirium. He becomes an “actor” wearing a “mask,” losing his conscience and moral compass. His actions are not his own; he says from the beginning that he did not want to shoot the elephant. Yet, to satisfy the “audience”—that is, the growing crowd—he becomes their puppet. In the end, he wears the mask of both comedy and tragedy, and the imposing British imperial system is turned into mere entertainment for the native people.


The sense of power, the face of power, the act of power, and the repercussions of power pervade the essay like the imperialist system. The narrator must keep up the mask he wears as a British officer, despite the conflict and turmoil under the mask. Despite his internal struggle, he uses his flimsy power in his favor when commanding the natives to fetch weapons and information for him. His mere presence conjures a sense of power even though he is still a foreigner. Being a British officer benefits him, and yet he is barely believable in the role as he is not steadfast in what he must do. The essay suggests that not much is gained by power other than destruction, corruption, and a loss of humanity. The narrator in “Shooting an Elephant” is caught between the power of the British imperial system, the power of his conscience, and the power of the natives whom he supposedly rules.

Guns are often a symbol of power in the essay. Even if power is abused or displaced, the weapon is often the voice of battle. Rifles are a motif used throughout “Shooting an Elephant,” and as the narrator gets closer to the elephant the rifles change. First, he brings a small one meant for intimidation and to demonstrate his control over the scene. Then he asks for a larger one to defend himself. Later, he uses a rifle to kill the elephant.


What is something worth? The narrator repeatedly questions the value of a life: the natives’, the elephant’s, the crushed coolie’s, and even his own. The elephant destroyed property and killed a man, and yet alive it is worth the equivalent of a “costly piece of machinery” (152). Dead, it is worth the price of nourishment; once it is killed, it is stripped “almost to the bones by afternoon” (155). The native people show respect to the elephant even after it is dead, as those who remove its flesh offer “dahs and baskets” in honor of the nourishment it provides (155). At the end of the essay, the narrator admits he succumbed to the pressure of the crowd to “avoid looking a fool” (156). He loses an element of self-worth when, despite his badge and uniform, he lets himself be manipulated by the people he is meant to rule. Avoiding embarrassment means more to him than standing up for his beliefs.

The elephant is a symbol of value throughout Southeast Asian cultures. Even beyond religious or cultural contexts, the elephant’s size and stature conjure awe and mystery. In “Shooting an Elephant,” the narrator admits fearing it despite the slow, nurturing, “grandmotherly air” of the animal (153). He says he does not mind killing animals when necessary, but the elephant’s large size makes it more difficult. When the narrator shoots the elephant, its size makes for a slow and agonizing death. The majesty often attributed to elephants is in view even as it dies, as the elephant rises once more before passing on its own terms.


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