In "Shooting an Elephant," George Orwell portrays a British colonial police officer in Burma who is called upon to kill a rogue elephant that has stormed through a bazaar, destroying some people's property and even killing a man. The officer is reluctant to shoot the beast, which he finds standing calmly in a clearing, but is driven to do so by the fear that the Burmese people will think him weak if he does not do it. The story is basically a commentary on the hostility between the supposedly paternalistic British and their colonial subjects. Because the narrator knows he is so hated, he must kill the elephant to attempt to gain their respect, and demonstrate that the British are willing to use brutal force to maintain control. Basically, though he is morally against killing the elephant, he must play the part of the brutal tyrant that the Burmese people imagine him to be. In this way, the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized is inherently corrupting. This is made clear at the end of the story when the narrator claims that he is happy the elephant had killed a man, because otherwise he would have had to reimburse the animal's owner.
At first glance, "Shooting An Elephant" is a tale of a colonial policeman who is forced to take control after an elephant breaks free and ravages the town of Moulmein in Burma. But, looking closer, this essay reveals much about the nature of colonialism and colonial relationships. Through Orwell's dilemma over whether or not to shoot the elephant, for example, we come to realise that he must behave in a very specific manner if he is to maintain his authority as a colonial officer:
"A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things."
Moreover, Orwell uses a metaphor to describe the pressure he feels from the local people:
"I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly."
This demonstrates that colonialism also has expectations for the native population. Specifically, they will mock him if he does not shoot the elephant because that is what they expect from a colonial officer.
In essence, then, the real meaning of Orwell's essay is that colonialism has a negative impact on everyone because it forces them to behave in a way which is neither natural nor ethical.