What purposes does the detailed and graphic description of the elep...

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What purposes does the detailed and graphic description of the elephant’s death serve in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant?” What does the elephant symbolize?

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That Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” (1936) is in many ways about the dehumanizing effects of colonial imperialism is hardly a new or original interpretation. The near-surface level of this thematic point is clear from, for example, how the essay’s central young man—whose experiences as a colonial policeman in Burma are retold—appears to have become incapable of seeing the Burmese people as human. The present essay, however, is concerned with the humanity and moral psychology of the young man himself, specifically with how his participation in and contributions to Empire effectively raze his self to the ground. Again, admittedly, this is hardly a new observation. After all, perhaps familiarly, one of the key moral arguments against torture is that its dehumanization cuts both ways, in that both the tortured and the torturer are rendered significantly if not wholly less human; there are parallels between this dynamic and the effects of colonialism, as plainly obvious from many aspects of Orwell’s essay.
What the present discussion attempts to contribute, then, is a text-grounded—and text-spanning—understanding of how Orwell works to achieve this thematic point. And, crucially, as will be seen, this particular reading has ramifications for how some of the essay’s pivotal scenes and its most potent symbol may be interpreted. Specifically, and drawing on and differentiating from the work of Tyner (2005) and, to a lesser extent, Kerr (1999), this essay argues the...

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