According to critic Thomas Bertonneau, the elephant of Orwell's essay symbolizes the pervasive corruption of imperialism as it affects both sides since imperialism corrupts the souls of both the conqueror and the conquered. This powerful animal, crushing whatever comes in its path, represents the conqueror; then, once the animal becomes rogue, it represents the resentment of the Burmese. Also, as a fallen symbol of the imperial government, the elephant induces the rapacity of the Burmese, who wish to take the flesh of this elephant in order to tyrannize something themselves.
When Orwell as a police official must respond to a call that an elephant was ravaging a bazaar, he finds himself "feeling two thousand wills pressing me forward." At this point, he realizes that, as a respresentative of the imperial government, he is compelled to shoot the elephant although he does not wish to do so.
...at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands,...I grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East....I perceived...that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.
To prevent the Burmese, who challenge his power, from laughing at him, Orwell shoots the elephant "to avoid looking like a fool." Like the British colonial rule, Orwell's power turns itself upon him.