Who are the marginalized people in the story "Shooting an Elephant"?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The short story "Shooting an Elephant" is set in Moulmein, Burma, where the author George Orwell had a job on the Indian Imperial Police force. The short story reflects his own personal experiences in Burma.

Great Britain completely colonized Burma in 1886, during Burma's time of political instability, and merged the country with India. The British takeover was marked with troops burning down villages and executing dissenters en masse. Plus, although Burma had been a wealthy country due to trade with China and India, the British completely changed, exploited, and collapsed the Burmese economy. They deforested mangrove forests to set up rice paddies and exploited the country for its rubies, teak, and oil. Hence, in Orwell's short story, the Burmese are the marginalized people, just as they were in real life under British rule.

We see Orwell describe the Burmese as oppressed, marginalized people early on in the story when he states, "I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British." However, Orwell also adds an ironic twist to this story. As he relays his story, he makes it clear that he had no intention and no desire to shoot the elephant. Yet, he felt very pressured to do so by the congregating Burmese spectators who thought it would be entertaining to see and wanted the meat. His feeling pressured leads him to have an epiphany: It's a joke for the white man to think he can hold complete dominion over the East. As he phrases it, no matter what, the white man would only be "an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind." Since one single white man in the East is under the control of the people of the East, Orwell concludes that it is really the people of the East who have the ability to oppress and marginalize the white man. As Orwell phrases it, "[W]hen the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys." Hence, though the British have oppressed and marginalized the Burmese, Orwell's story shows that the Burmese have the ability to oppress and marginalize one single, defenseless white man.

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