George Orwell works as the sub-divisional police officer of a town in the British colony of Burma. Because he is a military occupier, he is hated by much of the village. Though the Burmese never stage a full revolt, they express their disgust by taunting Orwell at every opportunity. This situation provokes two conflicting responses in Orwell: on the one hand, his role makes him despise the British Empire’s systematic mistreatment of its subjects. On the other hand, however, he resents the locals because of how they torment him. Orwell is caught between considering the British Raj an “unbreakable tyranny” and believing that killing a troublesome villager would be “the greatest joy in the world.”
One day, an incident takes place that shows Orwell “the real nature of imperialism.” A domesticated elephant has escaped from its chains and gone berserk, threatening villagers and property. The only person capable of controlling the elephant—its “mahout”—went looking for the elephant in the wrong direction, and is now twelve hours away. Orwell goes to the neighborhood where the elephant was last spotted. The neighborhood’s inhabitants give such conflicting reports that Orwell nearly concludes that the whole story was a hoax. Suddenly, he hears an uproar nearby and rounds a corner to find a “coolie”—a laborer—lying dead in the mud, crushed and skinned alive by the rogue elephant. Orwell orders a subordinate to bring him a gun strong enough to shoot an elephant.
Orwell’s subordinate returns with the gun, and locals reveal that the elephant is in a nearby field. Orwell walks to the field, and a large group from the neighborhood follows him. The townspeople have seen the gun and are excited to see the elephant shot. Orwell feels uncomfortable—he had not planned to shoot the elephant.
The group comes upon the elephant in the field, eating grass unperturbed. Seeing the peaceful creature makes Orwell realize that he should not shoot it—besides, shooting a full-grown elephant is like destroying expensive infrastructure. After coming to this conclusion, Orwell looks at the assembled crowd—now numbering in the thousands—and realizes that they expect him to shoot the elephant, as if part of a theatrical performance. The true cost of white westerners’ conquest of the orient, Orwell realizes, is the white men’s freedom. The colonizers are “puppets,” bound to fulfill their subjects’ expectations. Orwell has to shoot the elephant, or else he will be laughed at by the villagers—an outcome he finds intolerable.
The best course of action, Orwell decides, would be to approach the elephant and see how it responds, but to do this would be dangerous and might set Orwell up to be humiliated in front of the villagers. In order to avoid this unacceptable embarrassment, Orwell must kill the beast. He aims the gun where he thinks the elephant’s brain is. Orwell fires, and the crowd erupts in excitement. The elephant sinks to its knees and begins to drool. Orwell fires again, and the elephant’s appearance worsens, but it does not collapse. After a third shot, the elephant trumpets and falls, rattling the ground where it lands.
The downed elephant continues to breathe. Orwell fires more, but the bullets have no effect. The elephant is obviously in agony. Orwell is distraught to see the elephant “powerless to move and yet powerless to die,” and he uses a smaller rifle to fire more bullets into its throat. When this does nothing, Orwell leaves the scene, unable to watch the beast suffer. He later hears that it took the elephant half an hour to die. Villagers strip the meat off of its bones shortly thereafter.
Orwell’s choice to kill the elephant was controversial. The elephant’s owner was angry, but, as an Indian, had no legal recourse. Older British agreed with Orwell’s choice, but younger colonists thought it was inappropriate to kill an elephant just because it killed a coolie, since they think elephants are more valuable than coolies. Orwell notes that he is lucky the elephant killed a man, because it gave his own actions legal justification. Finally, Orwell wonders if any of his comrades understood that he killed the elephant “solely to avoid looking a fool.”