What are the setting and elements in "Shooting an Elephant"?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" takes place in Lower Burma during the 1920s when the country was occupied and controlled by the British. The protagonist of the story is a young British police officer, who is instructed to do something about a loose elephant that is rampaging through town. The British police officer has no intention of killing the animal but feels compelled to shoot the elephant because of peer pressure from the crowd of native Burmese civilians following him. The officer ends up killing the elephant so that he will not be laughed at or ridiculed by the Burmese civilians. After being shot numerous times, the elephant suffers an agonizing, slow death.

The story examines how the rule of the oppressor is reversed in the colonial setting. The British police officer feels pressured to demonstrate his composed, resolute demeanor by shooting the elephant in front of the crowd, despite the fact that he does not want to kill the animal and there is no reason to shoot it. The narrator is also a conflicted individual who sympathizes with the oppressed Burmese civilians but hates them because they make his life difficult. The dying elephant can symbolize the plight of the Burmese citizens, the decaying British Empire, or the narrator's conflicted spirit.

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The physical setting of the story is in British-occupied Burma.  The main character, a British soldier, is forced to kill an elephant after is has run wildly through the village on a rampage which killed a local man.  The soldier is caught up in an internal conundrum since he knows it is immoral to kill the now calm elephant--as much a character worth studying as any of the humans--but he also knows that it is expected of him by the locals.  Not to kill the elephant will be to lose respect of the locals which may put the soldier in an even more dangerous predicament than living among locals who already resent being forced to live under British rule.  The elephant symbolizes big government among other things...making it a difficult decision for him to pull the trigger.