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Why George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” is a Reflective Essay

George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” is a reflective essay of enduring relevance that explores the complexities of colonialism and oppression experienced by Orwell during his time as a police officer in British-ruled Burma. The essay revolves around the experience of Orwell shooting a rogue elephant that had gone on a rampage in a small town in colonial Burma.

The Incident at hand

In the essay, Orwell reflects upon the challenges he faced in his policing duties in a country he barely understood. When the Burmese people alert him to the presence of the elephant, Orwell takes on the role of the “white man,” the supposed authority figure and protector of the Burmese from the natives themselves. However, he realizes later that the situation is not as straightforward as it seems.

After traveling to the location, he finds the elephant increasingly agitated and unmanageable, and he feels convinced that his duty compels him to shoot it, despite being reluctant to do so. Later on, Orwell realizes that he should have made a different choice and that he was merely playing the role assigned to him by the society he was serving in.

The Reflections

Orwell’s essay unravels a dilemma of power: the power exercised by a colonizer over the colonized and the power that such an assignment of roles bestows on the wielder. He explores this within a personal context, reflecting on what his actions say about him, his role in the colonial system, and the mechanism of imperialism itself.

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Orwell seeks introspection, taking us along as he reviews his past behavior, examines the power structure in place, and arrives at some fundamental insights on colonialism.

Literary Techniques and their Impact

Orwell’s prose style adds layers of meaning to the essay. His use of symbolism and imagery effectively conveys Orwell’s sense of being trapped, figuratively and literally, in a situation where he has little autonomy.

His use of “I” throughout the essay creates a first-person point of view that encourages the reader to take a particular perspective, allowing us to see the complex nuances of the situation through Orwell’s eyes. The conversational tone of his words allows the reader to appreciate the challenges of trying to make sense of a foreign culture.

Key Takeaways From Orwell’s Reflection

  • The essay is a searing indictment of imperialism, and the ethical implications that arise for the colonizer and the colonized.
  • The essay shows the complexity of colonialism and the emotional toll it takes on both those on the receiving end and those tasked with maintaining the oppressive system.
  • Orwell also questions the morality of following orders without question and of playing a role because it is expected of him.
  • The essay concludes with a warning against colonialism and how it can corrupt the views of the colonizer, perpetuating the system through the next generation of leaders.

Orwell sees the elephant as an extension of the oppressive colonial system, a metaphor for the imperialism that is at the root of the conflict between Burmese and the British. Shooting the elephant symbolizes the violence that underpins the colonial project and serves as an indictment of the system itself.

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In conclusion, “Shooting an Elephant” is a powerful, thought-provoking essay on the human costs of imperialism, the moral dilemmas faced by those tasked with upholding it, and the dangers that arise when one individual or group is given unchecked power. It is a reminder of the power of the written word to provoke reflection and to challenge our assumptions, and an enduring testament to the enduring relevance of Orwell’s commitment to truth.


What is a reflective essay?

A reflective essay is a particular genre of writing that explores an author’s personal experience or beliefs, usually using a critical or introspective lens. It’s characterized by a personal tone and often focuses on how the author’s reflection provides insight into a larger issue or theme.

How is “Shooting an Elephant” relevant today?

Although it was written in the 1930s, Orwell’s essay remains relevant today as a critique of imperialism, the dangers of unchecked power, and the complexities of cultural encounters. The essay challenges readers to think deeply about the ethics of authority, the plight of the oppressed, and individual responsibility in the face of systemic oppression.

Why is Orwell such an influential writer?

Orwell’s influence lies in his ability to write with clarity and precision on complex and important issues. His willingness to speak truth to power and his commitment to social justice resonated with readers then and continue to do so today. His work remains a testament to the power of the written word to inform, inspire, and incite change.

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