In Moulmein, the narrator—Orwell, writing in the first person—is a police officer during a period of intense anti-European sentiment. Although his intellectual sympathies lie with the Burmese, his official role makes him a symbol of the oppressive imperial power. As such, he is subjected to constant baiting and jeering by the local people.
After receiving a call regarding a normally tame elephant's rampage, the narrator, armed with a .44 caliber Winchester rifle and riding on a pony, goes to the town where the elephant has been seen. Entering one of the poorest quarters, he receives conflicting reports and contemplates leaving, thinking the incident is a hoax. The narrator then sees a village woman chasing away children who are looking at the corpse of an Indian whom the elephant has trampled and killed. He sends an orderly to bring an elephant rifle and, followed by a group of roughly a few thousand people, heads toward the paddy field where the elephant has rested in its tracks.
Although he does not want to kill the elephant now that it seems peaceful, the narrator feels pressured by the demand of the crowd for the act to be carried out. After inquiring as to the elephant's behavior and delaying for some time, he shoots the elephant multiple times, crippling it but unable to kill it. The narrator then leaves the beast, unable to be in its presence as it continues to suffer. He later learns that it was stripped, nearly to the bone, within hours. His elderly colleagues agree that killing the elephant was the best thing to do, but the younger ones believe that it was worth more than the Indian it killed. The narrator then wonders if they'll ever understand that he did it "solely to avoid looking a fool."