“Shooting an Elephant” is filled with examples of warped power dynamics. Colonialism nearly always entails a small minority of outsiders wielding a disproportionate amount of influence over a larger group of local peoples. This imbalance of power in colonialism seems counterintuitive, and Orwell literalizes the imbalance by showing his ability to kill the elephant singlehandedly. But even this distribution of power is not clear-cut: Orwell and the British colonists do not in fact have absolute power over their colonial subjects. As the story continues, it becomes clear that the British’s status as colonists has rendered them powerless: Orwell is irked by subtle insubordination from the Burmese, and, moreover, feels obligated to “spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’" out of his own pride and because it is necessary to maintain the power (or façade of power) of the colonizing British. Thus, Orwell depicts his colonial experience as a series of paradoxical relationships, all revolving around power.
Power Quotes in Shooting an Elephant
With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.
That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the "natives," and so in every crisis he has got to do what the "natives" expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.
A white man mustn't be frightened in front of "natives"; and so, in general, he isn't frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.
But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree.
It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him.
And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.