"Shooting an Elephant" is one of the most popular of George Orwell's essays. Like his essays "A hanging" and "How the Poor Die", it is chiefly autobiographical. It deals with his experience as a police-officer in Burma. After having completed his education, Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police, and served in Burma, from 1922 to 1927, as an Assistant Superintendent of Police. His experiences as an officer in Burma were bitter. He was often a victim of the hostility and injustices at the hands of his colleagues and officers. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams in their book The Unknown Orwell write "He was friendless and inexperienced, not certain of what to expect and fearful of proving to be inadequate, a predictable failure."
Orwell could not grow a liking for the oppressive British colonial rule in Burma, and felt ashamed of being a part of it. He was disturbed by the conflict of loyalties going on in his heart because of the fact that he was at once opposed to the dirty work of Imperialistic feelings, but could not express them properly. He loathed the tyrannous and oppressive rule of a handful of British on a large number of Burmese people. He belonged to the class of oppressors but had sympathy with the uneasiness of conscience made it difficult for him to continue in the service of Imperial Police. The native people's hatred for the British and the strong anti-English feeling and atmosphere in Burma created more difficulties for him. Ultimately, Orwell gave up his job in Burma, and left for England in August, 1927. In the `Autobiographical Note', he explains the reasons for having to leave this job thus: "I gave it up partly because the climate had ruined my health, partly because I already had vague ideas of writing books, but mainly because I could not go on any longer serving an imperialism, which I had come to regard as very largely a racket."
"Shooting an Elephant" was written in 1936, almost ten years after Orwell's departure from Burma, when John Lehman asked him for a piece, which he could publish in New Writing. He appears to have recollected the incident very vividly just before he wrote the, but he had obviously been thinking of it intermittently ever since it happened. In Burmese Days, written several years before, the hero Flory, on his first meeting with Elizabeth Lackersteen, describes to her `the murder of an elephant, which he had perpetrated some years earlier'. This essay reads like the leaves from the same Burmese notebooks, which Orwell used in writing his novel. It is frankly autobiographical and describes how an elephant went `must' in a bazaar and killed a man. An Englishman was expected to rise to an occasion like this, so Orwell got the rifle and marched down to the field where the elephant had gone. As soon as he saw it, he knew that it was unnecessary to kill it; the fit was over. Equally surely, he knew that he was going to shoot it. The crowd following him willed him to kill it.