What seems to be Orwell's attitude toward the Burmese?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Orwell's attitude toward the Burmese is one of ambivalence. While he sympathizes with the plight of the conquered, he also resents the ugliness of Burmese conduct toward Europeans.

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...

The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all...none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny...with another part, I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.

Orwell's ambivalence stems in part from the unbridled hatred and disrespect the local people direct toward British police officers like himself. His personal sympathies toward the Burmese are often eclipsed by feelings of frustration, irritation, and contempt. He is frustrated that the Burmese do not recognize his own delicate position within the Anglo-Indian power structure, irritated that he has become a target for their petty bullying, and contemptuous of the typical Burmese duplicity.

The latter is clearly demonstrated through the elephant incident. When Orwell is informed one day that an elephant, stricken with musth, is raging through a bazaar, he knows that he has to act in a way consistent with local expectations. Although some experts don't necessarily consider musth a mere mechanism for signaling mating readiness, all agree that an elephant stricken with musth is a dangerous animal. In the story, the death of the Indian coolie demonstrates this fact.

Mahouts must chain the animals securely; if an elephant gets loose (as in the story), the results may prove fatal. Although Orwell had not originally intended on shooting the elephant, he comes to realize that he has to do just that. The idea of becoming a Burmese laughing stock is simply inconceivable. And so it happens, that after cornering the elephant with his shot-gun, Orwell is expected to perform the part of the European protector.

The irony of his situation is that he is expected to face down danger for the locals without benefit of any of the gratitude and appreciation that comes with such a sacrifice. The locals are happy to stand behind him in the face of danger and are equally happy to mistreat him during peaceful interludes. Hence, their duplicity fuels his irritation and frustration, which leads to his ambivalent attitude toward the Burmese (despite his sympathies). In the end, Orwell is just happy that he was able to preserve his dignity in front of at least two thousand Burmese.

Read the study guide:
Shooting an Elephant

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