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  • Writer's pictureRKPROST

Alone in a Colonized Country

It is a lonely life when one feels like they do not belong anywhere. That is exactly how­­ George Orwell constantly felt as a child and into his life as a young adult working for the British colonial bureaucracy. Orwell’s feeling of alienation by his peers and superiors causes him to sympathize with the Burmese and feel disgusted by his compatriots; however, the Burmese do not express sympathy, rather disgust towards Orwell because they perceive him as an oppressor. To understand Orwell’s justification of sympathy for the Burmese, one must familiarize themselves with the social class he grew up in.

While in school, Orwell did not fit in with his peers because he was from a lower class family. He describes being in a “difficult position” for he was “among boys who, for the most part, were much richer” than himself.[1]He made friends with “the plumber’s children” and his “chief heroes had generally been working-class people,” but they were of the wrong social class.[2] Because of this, he was “told to keep away from them” for they were “common.”[3] Rejected by his classmates and isolated from his friends, this feeling of being an outsider stayed with him throughout his childhood and into his time as a police officer in Burma. Although Orwell is physically distanced from the metropole, he fulfills his duty under the British imperialist belief that it is in the Burmese’s best interest to grow the empire.

Orwell’s job is to uphold and maintain power in Burma, yet he feels powerless against the Burmese people. As a police officer, Orwell is a man on the ground caught in the middle of the “innumerable interactions between the metropole and periphery” associated with empire building.[4] In Shooting an Elephant, the Burmese demonstrate a role reversal where they play the part of an ‘informal empire’ and Orwell plays the part of the subordinate. When a crowd of “two thousand at the least” parade behind Orwell, he submits to the role of “an absurd puppet pushed to and fro” because he feels peer pressure to go against his conscience.[5] The Burmese people act as an ‘informal empire’ because they issue “control rather than legal sovereignty” over Orwell causing him to fulfill their desires and do what they expect of him.[6] Like the colonization of Burma, Orwell has first-hand experience being singled out and dominated. This is a contributing factor for his sympathy towards the Burmese and his wish “to be one of them and right on their side against their tyrants.”[7] In addition to being a minion of the Burmese, he is also a pawn of the metropole.

Police officers and local colonial administrators are both integral to the British regime, yet Orwell feels alienated by his superiors. It was expected of him by the colonial regime to aid in the transformation of Burma from a “colonial outpost to modern metropolis,”[8] but “there is an appreciable difference between doing dirty work and merely profiting by it” as the local administrators do.[9] Orwell feels “horribly ashamed” of the work he does whereas the British empire does not.[10] This is because when the colonial regime criticizes the Burmese for undermining their authority, they “turn to legislation” to make them compliant in contrast to Orwell’s job which is to physically enforce the policies.[11] From the local administrators’ point of view, it is not a big deal to pass on “fines and imprisonment” to “colonial authorities,”[12] but to Orwell, he believes “his place [is] on the other side of the [jail] bars.”[13] Orwell feels like a separate entity even though both parties serve the British empire. For this reason, Orwell not only loathes his compatriots but is also disgusted by them.

Orwell abhors his compatriots because many of them are working-class men. This stems from being culturally conditioned early in life to believe “that there was something subtly repulsive about a working-class body.”[14] For instance, Orwell recounts the “lower class-sweat…and the thought of it [makes him] sick.”[15] Due to his “early acclaimed class-prejudice,” being surrounded by private, yet “common soldiers” disgusts him.[16] Although his compatriots do not find him physically repugnant, they manage to make him feel like an outsider. For example, Orwell points out that “even the other Europeans in Burma slightly looked down on the police because of the brutal work they had to do.”[17] The source of Orwell’s hatred for imperialism and sympathy for the Burmese comes from the guilt of first-hand experience administrating colonial rule. On the contrary, the colonist’s hatred for imperialism arises because they encounter imperialism at the mercy of Orwell’s hands.

The Burmese do not express sympathy for a police officer who inflicts cruelty and punishment upon them. The Burmese are a “victim of a foreign conqueror” who perceives Orwell as a representation of British rule and the source of cultural alienation.[18] From their perspective, the empire is “largely implemented and maintained for the benefit of one or more classes or factions in the metropole, often at the cost of inhabitants of the periphery.”[19] As a police officer, Orwell is the physical embodiment of the reason why the Burmese are subordinate, lack rights, and forced to be part of an empire they did not want to belong to. The Burmese “feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement in their own country” led to big events like the hsaya San rebellion but also acts of protest on a local level.[20] To illustrate, evidence of disgust for Orwell by the Burmese is demonstrated by “when a nimble Burman tripped [him] up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter.”[21]Although Orwell and the Burmese are in conflict with each other, their shared feeling of alienation binds them together.

Orwell is sympathetic towards the Burmese because he can relate to some aspects of their field of experience. The Burmese express disgust towards Orwell for his wrongdoings, but the two parties do not recognize they both feel alienated in their own way. This is a feeling many people have in common with each other for a multitude of different reasons. Whether it takes the form of exclusion in school because of class differences, discrimination based on race, or being frowned upon by coworkers and supervisors for the way one makes a living, it is a relatable experience for everyone.


[1] George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Secker & Warburg, 1965), 139.

[2] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 127.

[3] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 127.

[4] Trevor R. Getz and Heather Streets-Salter, introduction to Modern Imperialism and Colonialism, (Boston, Prentice Hall, 2009), 5.

[5] George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (London: Penguin Classic, 2009), 36.

[6] Getz, 4.

[7] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 150.

[8] Michael W. Charney, A History of Modern Burma (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 20.

[9] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 147.

[10] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 147.

[11] Charney, 9.

[12] Charney, 9.

[13] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 148.

[14] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 130.

[15] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 145.

[16] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 145.

[17] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 147.

[18] Orwell, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” 149.

[19] Getz, 4.

[20] Charney, 17.

[21] Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant,” 31.

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