Power relations in Shooting an Elephant

Reading “Shooting an Elephant”, I think my responses to it were quite..’schizophrenic’ might be a good word. I was rather conflicted about how I felt, especially regarding the way power was portrayed. On one hand, it was quite a breath of fresh air to be reading a piece of writing where we see the coloniser from an entirely different point of view. The narrator himself admits that “every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at”—he is basically ‘powerless’ to the people’s demands, in that he must shoot the elephant or be humiliated. The subversion of the typical coloniser-colonised relationship is very interesting, because while other texts have shown us the ‘human’ side of colonialism, they’re still always untouchaby dignified and in control (think Passage to India). It’s almost as if there’s an invisible barrier that prevents that last ‘façade’ from being removed. Here, we’re shown this nervous policeman who hates his job because he knows just how tenuous the colonial control over the people is, which is really quite a different perspective from the way colonial power is shown in Passage to India.

Yet, on the other hand, I couldn’t help but be suspicious of the way colonial power was portrayed. It struck me as, well, too sympathetic to the colonisers. At this point, I’m probably veering into angry, chest-beating anti/post-colonial area, but still, I think it bears thinking about. I’m sure the narrator’s perspective is a valid one, and colonialism most likely didn’t have the all-powerful, absolute control it portrays in many colonial texts, but nonetheless, the fact is that the natives were evidently unhappy about colonial rule, a fact the colonisers were aware of. Furthermore, they were unable to manifest their anti-colonial feelings in any way other than passive aggressive jeering, tripping or betel juice-spitting. This to me reflected the utter  power that the coloniser wielded—and if the point is only alluded to at the beginning of the story, it is made quite unmistakable by the end. The narrator kills the elephant to avoid looking a fool, but British law makes it legal for him to do so, because a coolie had been killed, and the owner is helpless to do anything because “he was only an Indian”.

The coloniser-colonised power relations is quite completely complicated in this story—where does real power lie? In the hands of the colonised or the coloniser? I really have no idea.

One thought on “Power relations in Shooting an Elephant

  1. very thoughtful yu ying, and a very important point. colonialism was in many ways not just due to europeans but also to complicit colonized subjects; as such, as you go further into its study, you find it more and more difficult to straightforwardly assign blame.