Explain this quote from "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell: "In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when i was at a safe...

Explain this quote from "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell: "In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when i was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves."

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The setting of "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell tells us a lot about how the narrator (Orwell as a young man) must feel in this environment. Orwell is a British citizen and part of the Imperial Police in Burma, India. This automatically puts him in a situation where the people he is supposed to protect and serve; most of the Indian people see him, because of his position and his "Britishness," as an oppressor. Emotions are hot and angry against any Europeans, whatever their position or rank. It is an awful circumstance for Orwell, as he states in the first line of the essay:

I was hated by large numbers of people.

The quote you reference is in the first paragraph of the essay. In context, it sets the stage for everything that follows. Orwell gives one simple example of how he is treated, despite the fact that he has the perfect right to be oppressive and subdue the Burmese people by force if necessary (but never does).

As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves.

The worst offenders, he goes on to say, are the young Buddhist priests, religious men who despised him because they despised Imperialism--something neither they nor Orwell could change.

The specific quote you mention can be explained this way. The "sneering yellow faces" are the faces of the Burmese people. Orwell did not like being an oppressor, and it is likely (from other things he has written about his experiences in Burma) he did not at first see these Indian people as anything but people. Over time, however, he has been mistreated in a way that has moved him to describe them in such an unflattering and even vicious way. No doubt their constant sneering (mocking) was part of this process. 

These sneering men (the women were not particularly free to express their distaste and hatred) were everywhere, and as he would walk by groups or clusters of them, they would verbalize their sneering with jeers and taunts (hooting)--but only after he was safely past and could not really punish them, of course. As we can imagine, this eventually gets badly on his nerves, as he says. While he does not lash out at them for these things, their behavior causes him to feel this way, and eventually in this essay, he will act on just this feeling.

This is an important revelation, as it sets the groundwork for his motivations later in the story. His situation is unnerving and upsetting, and it eventually got the best of him.

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