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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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What historical or political developments might the author be prefiguring in paragraph 2 of "Shooting an Elephant"?

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Orwell served as a member of the Imperial Police in Burma from 1922–1927. While it is not clear if the narrator is actually meant to be Orwell himself or if the events he describes actually happened, he would have been drawing on his memories of his time in Burma in...

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the 1920s while composing thisessay. In the second paragraph, he states:.

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.

The younger empires he is alluding to as he writes this in the mid-1930s are almost certainly the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In the 1920s, Hitler had not yet risen to power in Germany, and the worst of the Stalinist abuses were yet to come. Orwell is saying that while the behavior of the British imperialists in Burma in the 1920s was not admirable, and that he hated being part of their system of oppression, at the same time, what went on was nowhere near as bad as the tyrannies imposed by Stalin and Hitler.

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In paragraph 2 of "Shooting an Elephant," the Anglo-Indian policeman for the British empire, George Orwell, perceives the British presence as corrupting to both the conquerors and the conquered. As such, imperialism is doomed, Orwell suggests. The oppression of the Burmese--"the wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lockups"--as well as the ridicule of the Burmese for the British as epitomized in the Buddhist priest's subtle mockery as suggested by Orwell's desire to "drive a bayonet" into him, and later when Orwell goes to shoot the rogue elephant, imply that the tyranny of imperialism has turned upon itself. This is underscored when Orwell later states, "...when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys."

Certainly, then, Orwell suggests that he hates his job doing "the dirty work of Empire at close quarters." He also writes of the resentment of the Buddhist priests who were formerly supported by the monarchy and now have no financial support, a resentment that causes the British imperialists to be on their guard. These negative factors contribute to the suggestion of the unsustainable quality of colonial rule by Britain in paragraph 2 because of its lack of direction and absurdity.

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