Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

In Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell we have the theme of imperialism, control, appearance, trust, conflict, acceptance and values. Taken from his collection of the same name the reader realises after reading the essay that Orwell may be exploring the theme of imperialism. Orwell considers himself to be above the Burmese who he is paid to control. He has an intense dislike for their presence and if he had his own way would not treat them as he does. In fact he would treat them worse such is the little amount of value that he places on the lives of the Burmese people. What is also interesting about the story is that Orwell kills the elephant in order to maintain an appearance or a degree of superiority. He has no intention of killing the elephant yet when it comes to having to do so. He does so in order not to look like a fool in front of the two thousand gathering Burmese. This may be important as Orwell may be living his life not as a policeman but rather as an individual who knows that others have expectations of him. With the reality being there was no need to shoot the elephant.

Throughout the story Orwell is also concerned about the Burmese people’s opinion of him. Sometimes he can understand it yet he also wonders why the people are so annoyed with his presence. Something that is clearer to the reader when the topic of imperialism is raised. Orwell is an unwelcome guest in Burma. It might also be significant that Orwell doesn’t trust the Burmese people. Just as they don’t trust him. At all stages Orwell tries to keep the upper hand and exert his power over the Burmese people. Many of whom are submissive to Orwell and consider the killing of the elephant the right thing to do (for selfish reasons). How Orwell feels about the Burmese people isn’t helped by the fact that very few if any of them like Orwell of what he represents. At the time the British ruled Burma and had absolute control and power over the country. There is also a sense that just as the elephant has been conquered so too has Orwell been conquered by his environment. He is ill at ease with the work that he is doing due to the lack of support he receives locally.

Symbolically the elephant may also be important as he is valued by others and as such there is an uproar among some of the Burmese that a good working animal has been killed. It is very much similar with Orwell’s colleagues who don’t believe the elephant should have been shot because he killed one of the Burmese in the village. It is as though the elephant or the value of the elephant is more important to some than the fact that the elephant killed someone and may do so again. Life in the village has very little meaning. Which may be the point that Orwell is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that for some the elephant is more important than the life of a human being. Something that might not have been considered the case in Europe. It is these differences that provide Orwell with the dislike he has for his job. That along with the lack of respect he is shown by the Burmese. Overall Orwell longs to leave his job so that he can live in a society in whereby his values match the values of the society he wants to live in.

What is also interesting about the story is that Orwell feels pressurized into taking the course of action he does. It is as though he wants to be seen in a good light by the Burmese. Which would further play on the theme of appearance. Orwell appears to be looking for acceptance yet at the same time he dislikes the very people (the Burmese) that he is seeking acceptance from. If anything Orwell may be in conflict with himself doing things like killing the elephant when the reality is he doesn’t want to kill the elephant. There is also a sense of relief among Orwell that some of his colleagues accept that what he has done is the right thing to do. This elevates Orwell or at least makes him feel better about the course of action he has taken. Though the reality is that as long as Orwell stays in Burma he will be in conflict with himself due to his inability to adapt to the dislike that others have for him. A dislike that many who have lived under imperial rule may understand. Orwell is an unwelcome visitor in another person’s home and he knows it. No matter what he does he will have his detractors.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 21 Jan. 2019. Web.


  • There is another interpretation….the elephant is the (rampaging) British Raj. The rifle that kills the elephant is German, representing the war with Germany that ultimately weakened the British influence and power. The animal trumpets loudly when shot and takes a long time to drop to the ground and die. The elephant is then taken apart like the British empire which was disected and cut up after the war.

  • I taught English literature for ten years in college in Toronto in the 90s. My students represented a wide collection of cultures. When I would ask them to consider what the German rifle symbolized, the Asian students (Indians,Tamils and Pakistanis got it immediately….the war. Using the elephant as representing the oppressed people is not workable as a symbol because they do not die in the end. For me, Orwell is describing the history of the death of empire. The oppressed people of Burma did not go mad and crush the villager into the mud. The Empire did that on many occasions, including the well documented salt tax rebellion led by Gandhi.

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