In "Shooting an Elephant," what is the connection that Orwell makes between being important and being hated by large numbers of people?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The narrator of "Shooting an Elephant" describes himself as being despised by the Burmese people. He is a colonial policeman, and in this role, he is associated with imperial British rule, propped up by the threat of force. (Orwell himself served in the Indian imperial police for a time, so the narrator's voice is likely his own.) When the elephant tears through the bazaar, killing a coolie, the Burmese crowd demands that he shoot and kill it. He does not want to do this, because by the time he arrives on the scene, the elephant has calmed, and no longer poses a threat to anybody. Orwell reflects that, in order to appease the angry crowd, he has to fill the role that they expect of him, which is that of a hated "tyrant." This is the paradoxical nature of empireā€”he must compromise his morality, become what the Burmese people already think he is, or risk their laughter and scorn. For someone that has already determined that he hates British imperialism, the incident is profoundly unsettling, but in a "roundabout way enlightening." It underscores the duality of empire, a world in which a man like Orwell can, as he says in the account, hold remarkably contradictory feelings:

I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

The incident illustrates that, whatever objections they may have to British rule, imperial officials have to be hated to be respected.


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