There are multiple themes in "Shooting an Elephant," but the one that is perhaps the most central to Orwell's purpose is the fundamental moral corruption of imperialism. This is portrayed in the act of shooting the elephant. The Burmese people despise the narrator, because he represents the violence and arrogance of the metropole. He does not especially like them either, though he says he is "theoretically" and "secretly" all for them. When the elephant storms through bazaar, accidently killing a man, the natives demand that the narrator, a colonial policeman, shoot the elephant. This places him in a situation that highlights the corrupting influence of imperialism. He does not want to kill the animal, which has by that point calmed down, but he recognizes that to placate the crowd, he must do so. In other words, he must behave in the violent fashion that the crowd associates with imperialism:
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him.
This paradox is the point Orwell is trying to drive home, and it points to the basic corruption of European imperial rule.