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Shooting an Elephant

by George Orwell

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What is the writer's attitude towards imperialism and colonial people in "Shooting An Elephant"?

Quick answer:

The narrator is cool, objective and dispassionate about his own position in relation to imperialism.

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To answer this question, let's first consider Orwell's attitude towards imperialism. While he works as an colonial officer, as the sub-divisional police officer of Moulmein, Orwell finds no joy in his work nor does he support the empire-building of Great Britain, as he comments in the text:

Theoretically - and secretly, of course - I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors.

The use of the word "oppressors" here is significant: Orwell does not believe that Great Britain has any justifiable reason for colonising Burma nor for the subjugation of its people. From the text, we see that he has witnessed the great evil that is imperialism:

In a job like that you see the dirty work of the Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts.

This leads us to the second part of the question, regarding Orwell's attitude to the colonial people. On the one hand, he clearly feels very sorry for them but, on the other, he hates the way that many of them treat him:

I was hated by a large number of people…As a police officer, I was an obvious target.

So, herein lies the conflict in Orwell's attitude: Orwell hates imperialism and all that it represents but he hates the Burmese too, because of the way they act towards him. 

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What is the narrator’s attitude toward his own position in relation to imperialism in 'Shooting an Elephant'?

The narrator's atittude towards his own position regarding imperialism is one of cool understanding. He is narrating events in retrospect, looking back to his younger days when he was a colonial officer in Burma (as such, the story has strong autobiographical overtones). With the passing of time he is better able to comprehend his position in those earlier days as a confused young man experiencing ill-directed feelings of frustration and anger.

I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East.

The narrator, therefore, can now candidly admit his real helplessness and isolation of that period, not to mention his hatred of both the colonisers and the colonised. He casts a somewhat dispassionate, ironic eye over the picture of his younger, tormented self who battled to make some headway and to retain a shred of respect among the hostile native peoples while at the same time struggling to contain his fury at his own imperialistic government. As an (albeit unwilling) agent of imperialism, he does not appear in a flattering light. Nor is the least attempt made to sentimentalise the colonised people. Quite the opposite: the 'natives' appear as a sneering, unpleasant bunch who take the greatest delight in making things as uncomfortable for their self-imposed overlords as they possibly can.

In fact, in the end, we might say that the character that comes off best in this work is the elephant, who appears infinitely more dignified than any of the humans. In a world that appears generally petty, mean-spirited and downright spiteful, only the elephant's death strikes any real note of pathos.

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