During his time as a policeman in Burma, which was then a British colony, the story's narrator learns to hate imperialism. As he puts it:
In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters.
When has to shoot an elephant, the episode exemplifies the irrationality, cruelty, and dehumanizing effects of the system. The event shows him, he says, "the real nature of imperialism," and "the real motives for which despotic governments act."
When an elephant goes on a rampage and kills a man, the Burmese villagers turn to the narrator to shoot the elephant, as only the British are allowed weapons. By the time the narrator arrives, however, the elephant is calm. There is no need to kill it. In fact, killing it would be a mistake, a waste. However, because of the irrationality of imperialism, the narrator feels he has no choice. He realizes that imperialism robs the rulers as well as the ruled of their freedom.
I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. 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.
Shooting the elephant is cruel because elephants are huge, with thick hides, and it takes a long time for them to die. It takes this elephant half an hour to die.
From the start, the narrator shows how imperialism has dehumanized him:
I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.
The narrator realizes as he shoots the elephant that imperialism has stripped his humanity away, making him little more than a "dummy." Saving face and not being laughed at—playing the role of the strong, resolute sahib—has become more important than reason or compassion. Saving face has become the rationale for acting in a despotic regime. The narrator recognizes that imperialism does not work well for anyone.