As a recollection of a disturbing period from his past, George Orwell describes his shooting of a rogue elephant as "perplexing and upsetting." "Shooting an Elephant,"sums up the author's attitude about several individually related incidents, and it is the literary technique of tone that conveys his bitterness toward British colonialism, as well as his guilt over an act of moral cowardice.
Orwell's tone is best conveyed through his diction, or choice of words; however, it is also communicated by means of descriptions. Both of these methods serve to reveal Orwell's feelings on the unwelcome task that has befallen to him as an officer of the British colonial police and toward the Burmese people themselves, as well.
Initially, Orwell wryly establishes the uncomfortable and resentful position in which he finds himself as a British officer,
I was sub-divisional police officer...and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter.
Ironically, this bitter feeling is one that Orwell shares with the Burmese as he, too, feels imperialism is evil. But, he also realizes that he is committed to his duty as an officer. Then, one day Orwell has a peculiar experience which reveals to him the true evil of imperialism--"the real motives of despotic governments." When he must respond to a call about an Indian coolie, who has been killed by an elephant, Orwell describes him as a symbolic victim,
He was lying on his belly with his arms crucified and head sharply twisted to the side.
A crowd forms and watches Orwell, causing him to feel "vaguely uneasy" and, then, like a fool as he marches down the hill with his rifle as the Burmese crowd follows behind him. Acrimoniously, he realizes that "every white man's life in the East is one long struggle not to be laughed at." So, even though he does not wish to shoot the elephant, Orwell fires his rifle because he does not want to appear foolish before the crowd. The lengthy description of the slow death of the mighty elephant cannot be mistaken for anything but the symbolic and slow death of English imperialism:
It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die....I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into him....
With chagrin and resentment for his assignment, Orwell walks away from the lingering beast. Bitterly, he wonders if anyone realizes that his action against this poor beast was performed "solely to avoid looking like a fool."