In his reminiscent and reflective essay, "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell finds his role as a British officer to symbolize colonial authority. As such, the Burmese people react to him with animosity and resentment.
The antipathy of the Burmese people manifests as the Burmese people meeting Orwell with "sneering faces," or a Burmese referee on the soccer field looking the other way when a nimble Burmese player trips him. Young Burmese men hurl insults at him after he has gone a safe distance past them. Worst of all, Orwell states, are the Buddhist priests who "seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans."
Orwell realizes that to the Burmese he represents British colonial authority and its oppression. When he responds to the call about a rogue elephant, the crowd that forms eyes him with resentment, disdain, and hatred. Witnessing these feelings, Orwell notes that "[W]hen the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys."
Orwell finds himself compromised by his position, and he feels that he must kill the elephant because "every white man's life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at."
Orwell shoots the elephant "solely to avoid looking like a fool" since he has appeared on the scene as a figure of British authority. Upon later reflection, Orwell realizes he has exhibited moral cowardice in killing the elephant, a walking symbol of human nature that is sacrificed as an innocent victim of the oppression of colonialism.
Orwell was serving as a police officer in Burma which was then under the British Empire. The Burmese people were opposed to the imperialism and viewed all Europeans in disdain.
No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress.
The Burmese people were unable to retaliate but they still expressed their deep seated sentiments, especially towards the officers who they were in constant contact. The Burmese people insulted the Europeans whenever it was possible and safe to do so.
At one point, Orwell was tripped by a Burmese man when playing football but the Burmese referee looked the other away, much to the amusement of the crowd. The Burmese people were disrespectful towards him because of who he was and the work he did. Due to the animosity between the Burmese and the Europeans, Orwell was also a likely subject of ridicule and contempt among the people. This perception from the people eventually forced him to shoot the elephant, even though he knew that it was an extreme action given the state of the animal at the time.
I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.