A college professor who is planning to teach a course on imperialism contacted me recently, asking for my recommendations for the course’s reading list. If I had only one item to suggest for his class on empire and its discontents, it would not be an essay in history, political science, or economics. Instead, I would propose that he assign George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.”
In case you haven’t read or don’t remember it, Orwell’s story (written in 1936) is a tale told by an imperial policeman stationed in British-controlled Burma in 1926. The narrator is being sent to a bazaar to help tame a rampaging elephant that has trampled and killed local residents. When he arrives at the scene, the elephant seems docile. But the British policeman, who is supposed to be in charge, finds himself trapped in the expectations of the natives, who want him to shoot the elephant—which is what he ends up doing.
The message that the anti-imperialist Orwell tries to convey in this semi-autobiographical story is that the empire doesn’t just enslave those under its authority; those who control and serve it are also caught in the machinery of repression and cannot escape it. They are the victims of imperialism as much as—if not more than—the natives they dominate.
As the narrator of “Shooting an Elephant” puts it, “I...