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George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” tells the story of an event from his life when, as a young police officer in Burma, he was manipulated into killing an elephant by social and cultural forces he could not control or defeat.
Orwell’s context in this story is his position in Burmese society. England colonized Burma in the early 1800’s and engaged in several wars to expand their power over the Burmese and increase their access to the country’s resources. Colonization is usually not a pleasant process, resulting in conflict between the indigenous people and the invading power. Although the conflict might not always be violent in nature, it can have negative psychological and emotional effects on both sides.
Orwell was a police officer in Burma from 1924-1927. The opening line of the essay expresses his feelings about his relationship with the Burmese:
In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.
We can see from the essay that he was very uncomfortable with some aspects of his job. Orwell then relates that he was more or less forced to shoot an escaped elephant, against his own wishes, because of a large group of Burmese who were insisting that he do so:
The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly.
Part of the context in which Orwell is operating requires that he maintain a level of respect and fear among the Burmese. After all, the British were not in Burma by invitation--they were occupiers, and to hang on to power they had to show force. This kind of relationship can exact a psychological toll on those who must maintain it:
And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
In the end, Orwell must brutally and savagely kill a magnificent animal simply because his situation dictates that he take any necessary steps to avoid being “laughed at”—he cannot afford to compromise his position of authority among the Burmese people. This is what his context forces him to do. Had he been at home in England, chances are that he would have been able to follow his conscience and find a way to spare the animal and still keep the respect of the people around him.
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