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...

(The entire section is 2,107 words.)