The speaker in “Shooting an Elephant” is an unnamed British imperial police officer in Burma. He is hated by the local Burmese people, who do not respect him because he is only a “subaltern,” a rank just below a lieutenant. He is constantly fearful of being attacked or killed by the Burmese, and so he carries a pistol wherever he goes.
The British imperial police officer has just arrived in Myingyan, a small town near Mandalay when he hears that there has been an incident involving an elephant. An elephant had gone mad and killed a man who was working on its chain; now it was running wild through the streets of the town. The speaker knows that it’s his job to shoot the animal before it hurts anyone else. But he does not want to kill it:
I knew it would be fatal to show any sign of fear or nervousness; for at the best of times the Burmese hate to see a man whom they think their inferior in any way behaving differently from themselves.”
He feels compassion for this poor creature who has been driven mad by the conditions under which it has been forced to live: “I wanted to find out what the trouble was and have done with it as quickly as possible.”