Orwell’s Burmese Days

20th May 2011

The sheen of the world religions and foreign cultural forms is a thin and flaking glaze; Underneath it the whole of the old indigenous forms has continued to exist.

Van Leur, 1955 in Lieberman, 2003


Orwell was born in India in 1903 (Orwell, 2009) and was regarded as a humanist and a socialist whose writing was primarily concerned with how individuals are affected by social and political constructs. After graduating from Eton College in 1917, Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (Orwell, 2009). In 1927, he resigned his post and published Burmese Days (Orwell, 2009). While Burmese Days is remembered as one of Orwell’s major novels, along with Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. His literary reputation stems primarily from his treatment of European political and social problems and his ability to record how these turbulent events played out in the lives of ordinary men and women. Orwell’s greatest achievement has been enabling his readers to understand the implications of poverty, suffering, imperialism, fascism, and totalitarianism, upon people trying to live their own lives.

Published in the USA in 1934 and the UK in 1935 (Orwell, 2009), Burmese Days scrutinizes the corrupting influences of empiricism on both the colonialist and the colonized. It describes on a personal level the living conditions in Burma during British Imperialism, in the fictional district of Kyauktada. Burmese Days is the story of John Flory, a British expatriate and timber-merchant, with a disfiguring facial birthmark, who oversees timber camps in remote Kyauktada. Flory is a weak and lonely man, a coward, who retreats to the European Club for the solace found through the bottle, and the questionable companionship of the other expatriates. The major characters in Burmese Days, despite being fairly contemptible and difficult for the reader to develop any affinity toward, are memorable. By providing his readers with an image of colonial Burma through the daily life of the Kyauktada Club, Orwell displays a society with deep racial separation, where Europeans exploit both the land and people of Burma while discovering the cost of exile and isolation is a continuous battle against despair. Orwell, through Burmese Days, criticizes the militaristic, economic and cultural colonialism seen during his time in Burma. While all three forms of imperialism are notably present, the root of his focus appears to be economic in nature.

Orwell begins by briefly reviewing Great Britain’s militaristic imperialism of Burma. U Po Kyin recalls his first memory, as a child, of watching the British soldiers marching victorious into Mandalay and even then “had grasped that his own people were no match for this race of giants” (Orwell, 2009, p.2). Paralleling the takeover of Burma, Orwell’s description of the scene reads very briefly. The Burmese had no match for Britain’s military and advanced weaponry. As time progresses the British find Burma to be important “not only as a potential source of wealth but also as an element in Britain’s rivalry with France” (Osborne, 2004, p. 75) Britain lacked many of the natural resources they required for industrialization. For these resources they either traded or extracted them from their poor, but resource rich colonial conquests. In the end, it was the resource requirements of the industrial revolution that led colonization. This is exemplified in the question, the bitterly anti-English, Flory poses to his friend Veraswami, “Do you suppose my firm, for instance, could get its timber contracts if the country weren’t in the hands of the British? … The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English” (Orwell, 2009, p.38). Orwell through the words of Flory drives at the idea that the central motivation of imperialism is money. In his appraisal of imperial cultural, the so called “white man’s burden” used to justify the British occupation of Burma, ties back to economic imperialism and shows how economic imperialism eventually leads to cultural imperialism. He sees the “white man’s burden” as the excuse used to ease the minds of those imperialists living in the colonies, even Flory admits he is there only for the money. Conversely, the frantically pro-British Veraswami glorifies the great works that modernization has brought to Burma, a hospital, a police station and a school. However, as Flory sees it, the forests, villages, pagodas and monasteries will be replaced with “villa after villa” with gramophones all playing the same tune (Orwell, 2009, p.40). By critiquing imperialism through his characters, Orwell demonstrates that he is unsympathetic to their circumstances, and views their situations as products of their own weakness and of the social perspective of imperialism. Orwell’s own ideals are perhaps represented through Flory, showing his opposition to the mission of the white man, and failure to see the justification for imperialism.

If Orwell sympathized with any character it would be Flory, however Flory’s negative characteristics, and lack of courage in upholding his beliefs, restricts any affinity a reader might have. Through their social interaction and the European Club, Orwell’s characters provide a diverse view of what social life could have been like. “The Club” personifies the power and elitist social implications of imperialism on Europeans within Burmese society. There is an instance when Ellis, an overt racist who represents the most extreme elements of imperialism, and Maxwell are at the Club. Upon reading a slanderous article on a fellow Club member, MacGregor, Ellis instantly accuses the local doctor and close friend of Flory, Veraswami, of being responsible. Showing his weakness and aversion to conflict, not only does Flory fail to defend the doctors reputation, but he signs a public insult against him, rationalizing that it “was easier to insult his friend, knowing his friend must hear it” (Orwell, 2009, 63-4). Not signing it would have forced him into confrontation with Ellis and Maxwell. The friendship between Flory and Veraswami is hindered and ultimately destroyed by the perceived normalities and standards of European supremacy. Orwell writes about how England is free in comparison to the overseas colonies and imperial holdings where free speech and thought are censored.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheel of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedoms are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every conceivable subject is dictated by the pukka sahibs’ code (Orwell, 2009, p.69).

Ultimately, under the pukka sahibs’ code, pursuit of any lifestyle, no matter how errant, is acceptable, as long as it does not present a challenge to the existing conditions. Moreover, the local European community, while not openly suppressing local custom and culture, often ignores and privately reviles it as disgusting. Veraswami provides an example, of the British imperialist system, of creating an indigenous citizen who detests his own society while claiming the superiority of European culture. In colonial Burma, the accepted belief is of the superiority of British society. As U Po Kyin and Veriswami stand in opposition, both maintain the belief that their British masters are more worthy and more civilized than they are, thus strengthening their desire for acceptance by the European Club.

The overriding goal of the major non-European characters in Burmese Days is to gain acceptance into another’s culture. U Po Kyin is acutely aware of how imperialism affects social structure and plans to use the Europeans racist ideals to ruin Veraswamis reputation, becomming the Club’s first native member, an honor few will ever experience. He recognizes that the slightest insinuation of Veraswami having seditious thoughts could ruin his reputation. He explains this through saying that, “No Europeans care about proofs. When a man has a black face, suspicion is proof. A few anonymous letters will work wonders” (Orwell, 2009, p.8). Through his abuse of power and exploitation the native population to his own gains, U Po Kyin can be viewed as an imperialist collaborator. A master of imperialism at the local level, he uses both his rank and reputation to extort, blackmail, and secure promotion to ultimately achieve his childhood goal, to “fight on the side of the British” (Orwell, 2009, p.2). As a magistrate U Po Kyin possesses a European mentality in executing his policies. This indicates that the civilizing mission conducted by imperialists in “educating” the natives to the British way of life is working, but instead of imparting the positives attributes of European society, the British are conveying, to the locals, the worst.

Racism and xenophobia is an overarching theme in Burmese Days and the inequality between the Europeans and the Asians is evident throughout. The Europeans make sure that it is prohibited or at the least difficult for the locals to gain admittance to their clubs. Ellis exclaimed that “[he’d] die in the ditch before [he’d] see a nigger in here” (Orwell, 2009, p.20). The members of the European Club, whose classes would likely not have mixed in Britain, are united in Burma by political necessity and their hatred and fear of the “niggers.” Flory remarks that, “booze is the cement of the empire” (Orwell, 2009, p.37). The Europeans stick together, not because they like each other, but because it is beneficial, while an endless supply of alcohol is necessary to forget the lie that they are there to uplift their black brethren, not rob them blind (Orwell, 2009, p.37). The Europeans, power hungry and believing in their superiority, felt justified in going to Burma and violating the Burmese rights. The Europeans stripped the locals of their integrity, morality and character, to the point where the locals were referred to as slaves. There is no rational justification that can be offered for the subjugation of individuals, or for such an invasion and abuse of power. Flory is constantly torn between his own moral integrity and the social construct of domination that dictates he “forever dance the danse du pukka sahib for the edification of the lower races” (Orwell, 2009, p.156).

The person who suffers the most is Flory, who during his time in Burma determines that colonialism often contradicts human decency. Somewhat bitter and lonely he finds that it is impossible for him to live sanely in a world that operates on an insane assumption. He has become disillusioned with his lifestyle, living in a tiresome expatriate community centered round the European Club, peopled by a colorful variety of drunkards and bigots, in a remote part of the country. Conversely, he has become so embedded in Burma that it is impossible for him to leave and return to England. Flory’s relationship with Elizabeth stresses the capacity for loneliness to compel the humans to act in defiance of rationality. For Flory this results in tragedy, his reputation and friendship with Doctor Veraswami are destroyed, and ultimately he loses Elizabeth. The loss of Elizabeth is the catalyst that drives Flory to suicide. Elizabeth represents Florys views of life and a society far removed from Burma. She supplies him with hope, by providing a reminder of England and the freedoms of English society. The loss of Elizabeth parallels Florys loss of hope. Flory’s fate symbolizes of the fate of the British Empire, of imperialism itself and of the repercussions of a rigid and exploitive social structure.

While Burmese Days is an important work of social criticism, it also conveys the biases which scholars label as ‘orientalist’. Despite it importance in providing a clear image of colonial Burma being socially divided by racial tension, Burmese Days provides an uncommon observation of Imperial British dissent. Between the often remote and relatively insignificant Burmans and the Machiavellian U Po Kyin, through to Ma Hla May and the dutiful Ko S’la, Orwell never attempted to fully capture the social realities of life in Burma, but portrayed the human abuses produced by imperialism showing how British Imperial rule protected and promoted the systematic exploitation of the land and its peoples.

    References

Orwell, G., 2009, ‘Burmese Days’, Penguine Books Ltd. London England

Osborne, M., 2004, ‘Southeast Asia: An introductiory history’, 9th Edn., Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, Australia

Rai, A., 1983, Colonial Fictions: Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’, Economic and Political Weekly
Vol. 18, No. 5, January, 29, 1983, pp.47-52 [Online] Accessed: 12 April 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4371800

Lieberman, V., 2003, Integration of the Mainland, Southeast Asia in a Global Context, c.800-1830, Strange Parallells, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Upshur, JHL, Terry, J, Goff, R & Cassar, G 2005, World History, 4th edn, Thompson Learning/Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, USA

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