In the story "Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell, how does the narrator play the role of an imperialist?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In his short autobiographical essay recalling his years as a colonial police officer in British-ruled India and Burma, George Orewell isn't just the narrator of Shooting an Elephant, he is its conscience. By the time the events described in Shooting an Elephant occur, Orwell has already grown tired and bitter of his life as an enforcer for European imperialism. He isn't just playing the role of an imperialist, he is an essential cog in the machinery that makes imperialism possible. This representative of colonial authority is an integral part of the imperialist structure he has grown to condemn. The constant expression, some subtle, some less subtle, of hostility directed towards him as a representative of the British colonialists has worn him down and made him critical of the British presence in Asia and of his role in enforcing it. Early in his essay, he describes the transformative effects his small part in running the empire have had on his own perceptions of British foreign policy:

"I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically—and secretly, of course—I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters."

As Orwell's essay progresses, he is fraught with uncertainty regarding the mission that has fallen into his lap, that of killing an elephant that trampled a native Burmese. He knows the elephant was only doing what an elephant does, and that it no longer poses any threat to the town's citizens. He has no desire to shoot this magnificent beast, but he does shoot it, repeatedly, as though doing so will somehow exorcise the demons that possess him. As he laments in the story's finale, he has killed the elephant solely so as to not 'lose face' among the people he rules, who expected no less than the death of the offending animal. In Shooting an Elephant, Orwell plays the role of an imperialist because that is precisely what he is.

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