October 30, 2022

From Gerald R. Lucas

Notes on George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”

Shooting an Elephant” (1936) by George Orwell is a reflective essay that recounts the author’s experience as a police officer in colonial Burma. In the essay, Orwell narrates an incident in which he was forced to shoot an elephant that had gone on a rampage, killing a man. Orwell was torn between his personal beliefs, which opposed the killing of the elephant, and his role as a representative of the British Empire, which demanded that he act in the interest of the empire. The essay explores themes such as the abuse of power, the corrupting influence of imperialism, and the conflicting emotions of guilt and shame that Orwell experienced. Ultimately, the essay is a powerful critique of colonialism and a reflection on the moral dilemmas faced by those who are tasked with upholding unjust systems.


Dominant themes of “Shooting an Elephant” include:

  • Abuse of power: Orwell examines the corrupting influence of power and how it can lead to abuses of authority. He is forced to act against his better judgment and shoot an elephant to avoid being seen as weak by the local population.
  • Imperialism and colonialism: The essay provides a scathing critique of the British Empire's colonial practices and its impact on the colonized population. Orwell highlights the inhumane treatment of the Burmese by the British authorities and the resulting resentment and anger felt by the locals.
  • Conformity: Orwell also explores the pressures of conformity and how they can influence individual actions. He is compelled to act in a certain way to conform to the expectations of the crowd, even though he knows it is morally wrong.
  • Guilt and shame: The essay is filled with conflicting emotions of guilt and shame. Orwell feels guilty for shooting the elephant and for his role in perpetuating the injustices of the colonial system. At the same time, he is ashamed of his own weakness and his inability to stand up to the pressures of the crowd.


George Orwell in 1943.

“Shooting an Elephant” is a well-crafted essay that showcases Orwell’s mastery of the English language and his ability to use vivid imagery and metaphor to convey complex ideas. Here are some observations about Orwell’s writing in the essay that might be useful for first-year college composition students:

  • Clear and concise language: Orwell’s writing is characterized by its clarity and conciseness. He uses simple, direct language to convey his ideas, making it easy for readers to follow his train of thought.
  • Vivid imagery and metaphor: Orwell uses vivid imagery and metaphor to bring his experiences to life and to convey his ideas more effectively. For example, the description of the elephant as “a huge and costly piece of machinery” is a powerful metaphor that highlights the absurdity of the colonial system. What other figurative language and imagery sticks out to you?
  • Use of personal anecdotes: Orwell uses personal anecdotes to make his arguments more persuasive and relatable. By sharing his own experiences, he is able to connect with readers on a more emotional level and to illustrate his points more effectively.
  • Use of rhetorical questions: Orwell uses rhetorical questions to challenge the reader’s assumptions and to encourage critical thinking. For example, he asks “Would I please the mob? Was I a coward?” These questions force the reader to consider the complexities of the situation and to question their own beliefs.


  1. What is the significance of the title “Shooting an Elephant” and how does it relate to the larger themes of the essay?
  2. How does Orwell use imagery and metaphor to convey his ideas about imperialism and colonialism?
  3. What role do personal anecdotes play in Orwell’s essay and how do they contribute to his argument?
  4. How does Orwell use language to create a sense of tension and conflict in the essay?
  5. How does Orwell’s use of rhetorical questions challenge the reader’s assumptions and encourage critical thinking?
  6. What is the significance of the scene in which the elephant is killed, and how does it contribute to the overall meaning of the essay?
  7. What is the role of guilt and shame in Orwell’s essay, and how do these emotions contribute to his critique of colonialism?
  8. How does Orwell’s essay explore the complexities of power and authority, and what insights can we gain from his observations?
  9. In what ways does Orwell’s essay address the challenges of navigating conflicting cultural and ethical values?
  10. What lessons can we learn from Orwell’s essay about the importance of individual conscience and ethical decision-making?


  1. Analyze Orwell’s use of metaphor and imagery in “Shooting an Elephant” and discuss how they contribute to the larger themes of the essay. You might focus on a single image in your analysis.
  2. Compare and contrast Orwell’s personal experiences in colonial Burma with contemporary issues related to power, authority, and cultural conflict. How can we apply the lessons learned from Orwell’s essay to current events?
  3. Write a reflective essay in which you discuss a time when you were faced with a moral dilemma similar to the one Orwell faced in “Shooting an Elephant.” How did you navigate the situation, and what insights can you gain from Orwell’s experiences?
  4. In “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell discusses the corrupting influence of imperialism on those who are tasked with upholding unjust systems. Write an essay in which you explore the ethical implications of this argument and discuss whether it applies to other contexts beyond colonialism.
  5. Write a literary analysis of “Shooting an Elephant” in which you examine the use of rhetorical devices, such as rhetorical questions, in the essay. How do these devices contribute to Orwell’s argument, and what insights can we gain from their use?
  6. In “Shooting an Elephant,” Orwell discusses the role of personal conscience in ethical decision-making. Write an essay in which you reflect on the importance of individual conscience in contemporary society, using Orwell's essay as a starting point.
  7. Write a creative response to “Shooting an Elephant” in which you imagine an alternate ending to the story. How might the themes and ideas presented in the essay be different if Orwell had made a different decision?