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.