George Orwell’s Experience in Burma

Imagine having to live life-based on the government’s unjust decisions, societal pressure, and having to put personal beliefs aside. George Orwell describes, in his short story “Shooting an Elephant,” a life-changing experience of being a police officer for the British Raj in colonial Burma and having to choose from your own beliefs and the governments. This story explains the narrator’s conflict after he has been informed that an elephant is on the loose. The essay explores the process through which he makes his decision.

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 The essay describes Orwell’s feelings: “And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibility” (Orwell). The description of his feelings emphasizes the conflict in which he finds himself. Orwell’s essay provides a lens through which the reader can understand the challenges of the British Raj. Through the characterization of his narrator and symbolism, Orwell demonstrates the effects of societal pressure and government corruption, ultimately suggesting that even people in power do not have the freedom to make their own decisions.

The characterization of Orwell’s experience demonstrates the ongoing pressure of societal expectations through Orwell’s role as a police officer. Orwell describes his experience deciding whether or not he should shoot the elephant. By describing his role as “the white man with his gun standing in front of the unarmed native crowd-seemingly the leading actor of the piece” Orwell provides his readers with the idea that he is supposed to have the power and be in charge, however that is not the reality (Orwell). Orwell goes on to say, “in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind” (Orwell). 

The additional description explains to the reader the truth of the situation, which is that white officers are pressured to make decisions based off of the natives. Orwell expresses his role in society is to look as if he has the power, but his real role is to follow the natives’ rules. James Tyner’s analysis of “Shooting an Elephant” emphasizes the corruption of the society’s expectation of roles as a whole. He states, “In his work Orwell wrote about the connections of self and humanity of the experiences of living in dehumanizing environments” (Tyner 266). Tyner’s description helps readers understand Orwell’s characterization of his experience. Living in a dehumanizing environment affected Orwell’s self and humanity. The pressure he experienced to fulfill his role as an officer by shooting the elephant resulted in him losing his humanity.

The pressure that Orwell experiences while trying to maintain his role in society is symbolized through the shooting of the elephant. Orwell states, “To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trial feebly away, having done nothing-no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, everyone white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at” showing the corrupt expectation of roles in society (Orwell). By describing his experience, Orwell compares shooting the elephant with how the British Empire treats the natives. Shooting the elephant was a difficult experience for Orwell, his description of this situation showed him how much power the Empire had over the locals. The natives had no control, freedom or say over their countries’ decisions. In order to maintain control, the government had to escalate the amount of violence against natives. 

The way the elephant was killed, so violently, parallels how the empire needs to subdue the native people through violence. In his critical analysis of “Shooting an Elephant,”Thomas Bertonneau explains Orwell’s symbolism of his expectations of the corrupt society’s roles: “‘Shooting an Elephant’ depicts a cycle of resentment and violence, in part obvious, in part subtle. Obvious is the fact that, oppressing the Burmese, the British incur their righteous wrath” (Bertonneau 262). Bertonneau emphasizes the violence the empire uses to get what they want. He takes Orwell’s story and expands its lesson to explain the oppressive pattern of British rule. Bertonneau conveys the larger implications of the story in order to show his readers that Orwell’s essay addresses a larger issue in society. Throughout the story, Orwell illustrates that the empire is constantly using violence to maintain the appearance of authority. Orwell feels forced to shoot the elephant due to the pressure of his role in this cycle of violence and oppression.

Orwell shows the corruption of the government through the characterization of his narrator. Throughout the story, Orwell uses the description of the narrator’s experience to emphasize the presence of corruption in the society and government. Orwell provides the narrator’s opinion on the British Empire: “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better” (Orwell). Orwell further demonstrates the disconnect between the narrator’s personal beliefs and his later actions.

 The narrator clearly disagrees with his position of power. However, he recognizes that in order to maintain this power he has to fulfil the expectations that the government assigns him. Despite his personal feelings, Orwell understands, “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 had got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him” (Orwell). Orwell acknowledges that he has no real authority. In order to maintain his role he must keep up the appearance of the British Empire’s command. By reframing his role in terms of the expectations of the natives, Orwell describes the reality of his relationship with the people that he is expected to govern. By doing so, Orwell emphasizes the corruption and ineffectiveness of the British Empire. To illustrate this, Orwell provides his readers with specific examples on the corruption within the society and government. Peter Marks’ analysis of “Shooting an Elephant” asserts, 

“The narrator’s function as the personification of imperialism is seen clearly in the revelatory claim that ‘when white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom the he destroys.’ This appears to indict imperialism, to provide an index of its dehumanizing impact” (Marks 265). Marks specifically illustrates that Orwell is criticizing imperialism by identifying its effect on those in power. In doing so, Orwell emphasizes the corruption of the British Raj by demonstrating that even those who should supposedly benefit from British rule are victims of imperialism.

Orwell demonstrates the power and corruption of the government through the symbol of the beaten prisoner. In Orwell’s story he provides a variety of symbols to describe the corruption within the government and society. Orwell illustrates, “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” (Orwell). Orwell uses the symbolism of the prisoner to show the government’s power through the abuse of its citizens.

 Throughout this sentence Orwell describes the state of the cages, the prisoners poor health and how they are being treated to provide context for the cruelty of the British Empire. He hates to be part of a government that treats their people so poorly. He states, “In a job like that you can see the dirty work of the Empire at close quarters” (Orwell). Orwell expresses his distaste for the violence of the British empire, using the beaten flesh of the prisoner to symbolize the power of the government. Through his use of symbolism, Orwell illustrates that there are daily reminders of the corruption of the Empire, and the resentment that British rule brings. Similarly, in his analysis Bertonneau explains, “‘Shooting an Elephant’ depicts a cycle of resentment and violence, part obvious, in part subtle. Obvious is the fact that, in oppressing the Burmese, the British incur their righteous wrath” (Bertonneau 262).

 Bertonneau’s critical analysis summarizes Orwell’s use of the beating of the prisoner to symbolize the violence of the British Empire as a whole. He describes that shooting the elephant represents the dissatisfaction and cruelty of the government. Bertonneau explains that because the government had to maintain the use of cruelty on their society, the people started rebelling and lost all of their respect for the Empire. Orwell describes the presence of the beaten prisoners as if it is a routine occurrence, highlighting the pervasive corruption of the government’s power.

George Orwell uses the symbols of shooting the elephant, the image of the beaten prisoner, and the characterization of his narrator’s experience to show the societal pressure and the corrupt government he experienced in Burma. Orwell’s characterization of the narrator’s experience illustrates the effect of societal pressure on those in power during British rule. 

The shooting of the elephant symbolizes his role in society. Orwell’s characterization of the narrator demonstrates the corruption within the government. His use of symbolism shows the power within the British Raj through the beaten prisoner. Through this symbolism and characterization, Orwell’s short story, “Shooting an Elephant” is demonstrative of what was happening throughout the British Empire. The British Raj used cruelty and violence to keep their power, which resulted in the hostility and bitterness from the people. Orwell experienced the reality of living life where he had to put his personal beliefs aside and deal with the government’s unfair decisions. In the end, Orwell was upset and humiliated, he felt foolish and uncomfortable with how his government acted. Orwell’s larger message was this type of power, the absolute rule, is not the way to live one’s life.

Works Cited

  1. Bertonneau, Thomas. ‘Critical Essay on ‘Shooting an Elephant.” Short Stories for Students, edited by Kathleen Wilson and Marie Lazzari, vol. 4, Detroit, Gale, 1998, pp. 251-73. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2695100024/GVRL?u=sicpl_main&sid=GVRL&xid=865e56e2. Accessed 22 Jan. 2020.
  2. Marks, Peter. ‘The Ideological Eye-witness: An Examination of the Eye-witness in Two Works by George Orwell.’ Short Stories for Students, edited by Kathleen Wilson and Marie Lazzari, vol. 4, Detroit, Gale, 1998, pp. 251-73. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX2695100024/GVRL?u=sicpl_main&sid=GVRL&xid=865e56e2. Accessed 22 Jan. 2020. Originally published in Subjectivity and Literature from the Romantics to the Present Day, edited by Philip Shaw and Peter Stockwell, Pinter Publishers, 1991, pp. 85-92.
  3. Orwell, George. ‘Shooting an Elephant.’ Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950, p. 3+. Gale Literature: LitFinder, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A267063599/LITF?u=sicpl_main&sid=LITF&xid=2b5f3682. Accessed 14 Jan. 2020.
  4. Tyner, James A. ‘Landscape and the Mask of Self in George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant.” Area, vol. 37, no. 3, Sept. 2005, pp. 260–267. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.2005.00629.x. Accessed 23 Jan 2020.        
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George Orwell’s Experience in Burma. (2021, Nov 29). Retrieved May 26, 2022 , from
https://studydriver.com/george-orwells-experience-in-burma/

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