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Why “Shooting an Elephant” is a Reflective Essay: Themes and Literary Devices Explored

“Shooting an Elephant,” written by George Orwell in 1936, is considered one of the greatest essays of the 20th century. The essay is widely recognized as a reflective essay, and in this article, we will explore the reasons why.

Key Takeaways:

  • “Shooting an Elephant” is a reflective essay because Orwell reflects on his experiences and offers insights and interpretations about them.
  • Themes such as imperialism, morality, and power are explored throughout the essay.
  • Orwell uses symbolism and literary devices such as contrast and imagery to convey his message.
  • The essay was written in the context of British imperialism in India, which heavily influenced Orwell’s writing.
  • The themes and messages of the essay continue to be relevant today, particularly in terms of exploring the impact of power on individuals and society.


One of the key themes explored in “Shooting an Elephant” is that of imperialism. The essay is set in colonial India, and Orwell reflects on the power dynamics of the time. He explores the idea that the British Empire had a negative impact on both the colonized and the colonizer, and that the pursuit of power often led to moral corruption.

The theme of morality is also central to the essay, as Orwell reflects on the moral dilemma he faced in shooting the elephant. He grapples with the idea that he was expected to uphold British power and authority, even if it went against his personal beliefs and values. Other themes explored in the essay include the idea of individual versus collective responsibility, and the role of violence in maintaining power.

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Literary Devices

Orwell uses a variety of literary devices in “Shooting an Elephant” to convey his themes and messages. One of the most prominent devices is symbolism, with the elephant serving as a metaphor for British imperialism in India. The death of the elephant at the hands of Orwell serves as a powerful message about the destructive nature of imperialism and the impact of power on individuals and society.

In addition to symbolism, Orwell employs literary devices such as contrast, imagery, and rhetorical questions. The use of contrast is particularly effective in highlighting the complex power dynamics of colonial India, while imagery and rhetorical questions are used to enhance the emotional impact of the essay.

Historical Context

It is impossible to understand “Shooting an Elephant” without considering the historical context in which it was written. At the time, India was still under British colonial rule, and Orwell’s experiences in the country heavily influenced his writing. The essay serves as a commentary on British imperialism in India and its impact on both the colonized and the colonizer.

Relevance Today

Despite being written over 80 years ago, the themes and messages of “Shooting an Elephant” continue to be relevant today. The essay provides a powerful commentary on the impact of power, authority, and morality, and the role that they play in shaping individuals and society. The message of the essay transcends time and place, and it is a testament to Orwell’s skill as a writer that his work continues to resonate with readers today.


“Shooting an Elephant” is a reflective essay that explores complex themes and messages through the use of symbolism, literary devices, and personal experience. The essay serves as a powerful commentary on the impact of power, authority, and morality, and its relevance extends far beyond the historical context in which it was written. Orwell’s work continues to inspire readers today, and it is a testament to the enduring power of great writing.

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