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

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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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.

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