“Shooting an Elephant” is an explicit title, setting readers’ expectations for an event involving the shooting of an elephant. The exotic animal also hints at the setting, indicating that the story probably takes place in a country where elephants live. Readers may be aware that George Orwell spent time in Burma and India, so might expect the events to take place in one of these countries. The story confirms that the action takes place in Burma during the British rule.
The title also suggests that the events are tragic, as shooting an elephant is not generally seen as something good or positive, but only something which should be done in an emergency. From the story we find out that the shooting of the elephant is all the more unethical since the narrator does it solely to protect his own reputation: “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”
On a symbolic level, the elephant might symbolise the British Empire and its demise – something the narrator also reflects on: “I did not even know that the British Empire is dying…” . Like the elephant, the British Empire ended gradually. The fact that the elephant dies at the hand of the British narrator might hint that the fall of the empire was also caused by the British. At the same time, the fact that the locals skin the elephant after his death might be symbolic of the elephant as a symbol of the colonies whose resources are depleted by colonisers. As a symbol of colonies, the death of the elephant can be seen as the destruction of colonies as a result of imperialism.
The short story begins by directly introducing readers to the setting and main character: “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people--the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town…” . The opening lines also set the conflict in the story, as we find out the police officer does not get along with the locals.
The story stands out through the fact that the exposition includes the narrator’s lengthy reflection on the British Empire and his conflict with the locals:
…made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out ...