Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The British Empire and Nationalism
‘‘The City of London,’’ writes Paul Johnson in Modern Times, ‘‘was incapable of planning anything, let alone a world-wide conspiracy; it simply followed what it imagined (often wrongly) to be its short-term interests, on a day-to-day basis.’’ Johnson refers to the British Empire, with its far- flung dominions, and to the widespread contemporary idea that the age of imperialism resulted from the malicious foresight of evil powers. Johnson argues instead the great empires of Britain, France, and the Netherlands expanded through a series of unplanned acquisitions, burdening the home country with moral guilt and monetary debt, and dissolving as spontaneously as they formed. Something of Johnson’s analysis seems to inform ‘‘Shooting an Elephant,’’ with its air of absurdity and directionlessness. If anyone knew about the tedious minutiae of imperial administration, it was George Orwell, who had been born in India and who served in Burma (1922-27) as a colonial policeman.

Orwell arrived at a time when Burmese native interests began to assert themselves against British rule (the British had been in Burma since 1824, when they defeated a Burmese warlord, Maha Bandula, who aggressively opposed British interests in Bengal). Strikes organized by the Young Buddhists paralyzed the administrative center of Rangoon; the antimodern Sayan San movement gained strength in the countryside (and would foment a full-scale rebellion in 1932, a few years after Orwell’s departure). Indeed, one of the chief consequences of Western imperial expansion in Asia (as in Africa) was that it brought industrialized and non-industrialized societies forcibly together in a world made ever smaller by technological progress and so provoked resentment between the ‘‘haves’’ and ‘‘have-nots.’’ The resentment persisted, moreover, even where the colonized society benefited materially from the imperial presence. Burma was one of the few arms of the British Empire that actually produced a profit, through rice exports, in the period between the two world wars. Nationalism is the political expression of the spontaneous resentment against the foreigners recorded by Orwell in his story.

Western Self-Doubt after World War One
‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ takes place in an exotic setting, but it is a Britisher’s story and tells us at least as much about Europe between the wars as it does about colonial Burma in the same period. The story’s narrator above all doubts his own legitimacy, and this self-doubt characterizes much of European life in the aftermath of World War I. That war shattered the confidence of the proverbial Good European; it seemed to prove that civilization was a kind of delusion always ready to collapse into the fraternal violence of international conflict. World War One vindicated the West’s pursuit of technological excellence: aviation and broadcasting, for example—features of modern life—emerged from the war; but Western nations came to question their moral capacities after participation in the bloodbath of the war. One response to the horror of the war was the escapist enthusiasm of ‘‘the Roaring Twenties,’’ but, for intellectuals, this offered little consolation, precisely because it was so obviously escapist. Much thoughtful literature of the 1920s is full of bewilderment and pessimism, with works like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Franz Kafka’s The Trial suggesting the intellectual temper of the times.

The American stock-market crash in 1929, and subsequent worldwide economic depression, provoked an even greater depth of crisis. European nations, not yet fully recovered economically from the war, plunged into catastrophic non-production, inflation, and unemployment.

The response to crisis is often to look for scapegoats. The 1930s, the decade when ‘‘Shooting an Elephant’’ appeared, was already the decade of persecution in the service of nationalism. The...

(The entire section is 2,107 words.)