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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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In the first two paragraphs of "Shooting an Elephant," how does Orwell use imagery to create a contrast between the people of Burma and the narrator? What is the effect on the reader?

In the first two paragraphs of "Shooting an Elephant," Orwell uses imagery that shows the contrast between the position of the narrator, a member of the British imperial police, and the oppressed and angry Burmese. By illustrating the hatred that runs both ways, Orwell impresses on the reader the emotional intensity, dysfunction, and complexity of imperialism.

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Imagery is description using any of the five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell. In the first paragraph, Orwell creates imagery by describing the way the Burmese show hatred for him. For example, he writes,

When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football [soccer] field and...

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Imagery is description using any of the five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell. In the first paragraph, Orwell creates imagery by describing the way the Burmese show hatred for him. For example, he writes,

When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football [soccer] field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter.

The imagery continues as the narrator pictures

the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance.

In the second paragraph, the narrator uses imagery to contrast his privileged position as an imperial police officer from Britain with plight of the oppressed Burmese:

The grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos

In the most powerful image in the first two paragraphs, the narrator says,

I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.

The effect of these images is to convey the complexity and contradiction of the situation in imperial Burma in the 1920s. Imagery hits us emotionally, and we feel for the emotional predicament that the narrator is in and that the Burmese are in. He states that he loathes imperialism and feels guilty over how the Burmese are treated by the British. However, we also feel his resentment at being constantly hated, mocked, and jeered at by the Burmese. He conveys graphically how he pities them and yet wants to kill them at the same time.

We most likely feel shocked at the intensity of the narrator's build-up of negative feelings towards the Burmese and the racial difference he perceives, visualized in describing them as having "sneering yellow faces." (This is less intense with the prisoners, whom he sees as "grey." He also doesn't describe himself; his whiteness is assumed.) His contradictory emotions upset our simplistic ideas that feelings towards the oppressed are uniformly kind and benevolent. Systemic injustice causes anger and hatred that flows both way.

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