How is the time period characterized in George Orwell's Shooting an Elephant?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Shooting an Elephant is an autobiographical essay by Eric Arthur Blair, better known since he began publishing his works as George Orwell. When contemplating the time period in which Orwell's story takes place, then, one need merely examine the late author's biography for key details, such as the period of time during which he served in the Southeast Asian nation of Burma as a member of the Imperial Police Force, in which capacity he enforced the dictates of Great Britain's colonial administrators. That is the key indicator of the time period in which Shooting an Elephant takes place. British rule of Burma extended from the early 19th century and ended during the period of post-World War II decolonization -- 1948 in the case of Burma -- that witnessed the end of the British Empire. This period of time is characterized by the fact that the author, Orwell, is describing his own experiences and observations as a colonial enforcer, a position that made him both the face of the occupation and the target of the indigenous population's wrath. As he writes in the opening of his story, "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." To a certain degree, Orwell's observations are prescient in describing the dehumanizing nature of imperialism for conqueror and vanquished alike. As he reflected retrospectively on this formative period in his life, Orwell notes the inevitable decline of the empire he served and the just-as-inevitable rise of new practitioners of imperial expansion: 

"I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it."

Orwell could not have known at the time of the events described in this essay that the end of the British Empire was growing near, but he certainly was able to infer for from his experiences as the hated representative of a foreign power occupying another country that long-term occupation was unsustainable. More to the point, however, the fact that Shooting an Elephant is autobiographical and that Orwell did in fact serve in Burma during the 1920s is all the evidence we need that the time period depicted is the 1920s.

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