Why did the Burmese hate George Orwell in "Shooting an Elephant?"

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rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Burmese people hate Orwell, or more properly the narrator, because as a colonial policeman, he is a representative of the British Empire. "As a police officer," he says, "I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so." This was disconcerting to him, because he fancied himself a good liberal, "all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British." Yet to the Burmese people, he was an instrument of that oppression, which included by Orwell's own admission, a great deal of "dirty work." The story is intended to illustrate the perverse contradictions of an imperial state. Orwell is hated in part because he is associated with violence, and yet he must reluctantly commit an act of violence (i.e. shooting the elephant) in order to maintain credibility with the Burmese crowd. He must, in short, play the role that is prescribed for him in a British colony, a role that entails acting with cruelty:

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd...in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy...For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him.

This is only one of many contradictions created by colonialism, which Orwell portrays as unnatural, immoral, and in this case, absurd. Like many power relationships, it commits its participants to accepting its tortured logic rather than obeying the dictates of their own consciences. The case of the elephant is meant to demonstrate this.

droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Orwell gives some strong indications in this essay as to why anti-European bitterness, as he calls it, had risen to a great height in Burma at this time. The people of Burma did not hate Orwell personally, but rather as a representative of a government which was responsible for the sorts of severe punishments they would not have inflicted upon their own people:

The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos—all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.

The Burmese regime was never as seamlessly run as, for example, the Raj in India; this can be seen in the ways the Burmese respond to the narrator in this essay. They hate the oppressive government, and they do not respect it. They treat its representatives in “petty” and taunting ways, highlighting the absurdity of the situation in which Orwell, as supposed controller of a populace, is really controlled by it. Orwell suggests that the Burmese hate him exactly because they cannot respect his authority: they know he is only a puppet policeman to whom the system is not even something to be respected. As Orwell notes, the Empire at this point was dying, and the people’s behavior reflects a certain awareness of, and scorn for, this fact.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Burmese hate George Orwell because of the strong anti-European sentiment at the time. The English are the colonial rulers, and the Burmese resent them for being the imperial masters. Orwell himself understands why the Burmese hate him because he is agent of the colonial empire, and he witnesses his country's oppression of the Burmese firsthand. For example, he sees masses of convicts in the dark jails that are run by the British, and he sees the drawn faces of the prisoners. He also sees the marks of bamboo on prisoners who have been flogged with sticks. Orwell believes that hatred is the result of any type of imperialism. Though the Burmese hate Orwell, they fully expect him to perform his official duty to kill the rampaging elephant, and they offer him a kind of hesitant respect because he holds a rifle in his hands. 

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Shooting an Elephant

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