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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell
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How was Orwell treated by the local Burmese in "Shooting an Elephant"?

Orwell was treated with contempt and disdain by the local Burmese in "Shooting an Elephant." They would taunt and ridicule Orwell and influence him to act against his will. Although Orwell sympathized with their difficult situation, he resented and hated the local Burmese for making his job impossible.

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George Orwell was an officer in the Burmese military police and was thus despised by the local Burmese. Although the local Burmese were civilians, there is a military term which encapsulates their treatment of him. The phrase in question, used to indicate a minor breach of discipline which would otherwise be difficult to describe, is "dumb insolence." For example, soldiers treat an officer with dumb insolence when they do not like or respect him and wish to make this clear but also want to stop short of open rebellion. The object is to infuriate the officer with continual petty annoyances, none of which quite merits decisive action on its own, so that if the officer takes issue with their behavior, he will appear to be making a fuss about nothing.

Orwell makes it clear that the dumb insolence with which he was treated by the people of Moulmein was understandable, and, theoretically, he was sympathetic. He had power over them in a system of which he himself disapproved, and they naturally resented him as a foreign interloper. However, as the recipient of their constant jeering, smirking, and minor insults, he could not help returning their hostility, particularly when they used the strength of their numbers to force his hand, as they did when compelling him to shoot an elephant against his will.

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On the one hand, the local Burmese hated and despised Orwell for being a colonial police officer. He was a foreigner in their country, a willing cog in the machine of colonial oppression that kept them in a state of subjection. On the other hand, however, they still expected him to do his job. In one particular case, that meant killing a runaway elephant.

There is really nothing contradictory about this attitude. Although the Burmese may not have wanted Orwell, or any other foreign colonialist, to be in their country, they still expected order to be maintained. On the whole, they would have preferred to have order provided by one of their own. But until independence from colonial rule finally arrived, they still expected a British colonial police officer to do his duty and protect them from harm.

Thus, the Burmese treated Orwell with contempt and derision while at the same time expecting him to do his job and shoot the elephant. In turn, this made Orwell, who was none too enthusiastic about British colonialism and the role he played within it, feel hatred and resentment towards the native Burmese.

Again, there is no real contradiction here. Orwell hated the system of colonialism in the abstract while still harboring a certain contempt for the Burmese locals who suffered under it, especially since those people were making it difficult for him to do his job.

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As a British police officer working in Lower Burma, Orwell was hated and mocked by the native population. Orwell mentions that anti-European sentiment was very bitter throughout the region, and he notes that he was viewed as an easy target by many oppressed Burmese civilians. Although none of the Burmese natives had the courage to raise a riot or rebel against the colonial government, they would continually mock, jeer, and taunt the British officers from a safe distance. Orwell even recalls playing in a local soccer game, where a Burmese player purposely tripped him in front of the hostile fans, who found it hilarious when the referee looked the other way.

Orwell found the minor incidents and constant ridicule irritating and disheartening. According to Orwell, the young Buddhist priests were the most active taunters, and their favorite pastime was standing on the corner to jeer at Europeans. The British officer even referred to the Burmese natives as "evil-spirited little beasts." Orwell's hatred and disgust for the local Burmese citizens was so strong that he even dreamt about driving a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.

To make matters more complex, Orwell secretly supported the Burmese natives against the oppressive colonial government he represented. Orwell witnessed the horrors of imperialism firsthand but resented the locals for making his work difficult. Essentially, Orwell despised the Burmese natives and desired to quit his job altogether. Unfortunately, Orwell received an order to investigate a situation involving a rogue elephant and was forced against his will to shoot the peaceful beast when he succumbed to the peer pressure from the Burmese natives.

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The narrator of Orwell's classic short story "Shooting an Elephant" is a British police officer stationed in Lower Burma, where he is ridiculed, mocked, and jeered at by the local Burmese civilians. As an agent of the oppressive colonial regime, the officer is hated by the locals, who resent the presence of the British and the discrimination and abuse they suffer at the hands of the ruling colonial government. The British officer mentions that the predominant atmosphere of Lower Burma was anti-European and recognizes himself as a prime target for the disgruntled Burmese natives. The narrator says that the locals would go out of their way to trip, mock, and annoy him every chance they had.

The Burmese natives would also jeer, ridicule, and yell insults at him when they were a safe distance away. The British officer also comments that the Buddhist priests were the "worst of all" and he would often fantasize about fatally stabbing them with his bayonet. Although the British officer cannot stand being treated with contempt and derision by the Burmese natives, he sympathizes with their plight and supports their independence. The officer states,

—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. (Orwell, 2)

The narrator is in a difficult, perplexing situation, where he supports the Burmese against the British but cannot stand how they treat him. The British officer attempts to explain his unique circumstance by saying,

All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. (Orwell, 2)

Overall, the British officer hates the way he is treated by the local Burmese natives, who make his life miserable and extremely difficult.

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