Sunday, March 22, 2015

Burmese Days by George Orwell


Burmese Days is a fictitious novel based on Orwell's own experience while working with the Indian Imperial Police in the 1920s.  If E.M. Forster wanted to prick the British conscience in A Passage to India, Orwell wants to bludgeon it.

The story centers around a small group of British people living in a remote part of Burma, working in the jungle.  Their one venue for socializing and amusement is a country club where all the expatriates gather to get on each other's nerves and drink themselves blue.

There's only one woman, Mrs. Lackersteen.  She pompous and racist, refusing to learn the language other than the basic guttural Urdu she needs to order about servants.  Her husband is a drunken, lecherous lout who, when not drunk, engages in sexual escapades with native women.

Most of the British men there do, but Mrs. Lackersteen's greatest fear is to be raped by an Indian because she knows that is every Indian man's ambition.

The rest of the characters are just as odious with the exception of the ones that are pathetic. John Flory would fall into the latter category. Flory is the main protagonist of Burmese Days.

Not that he doesn't do things that are odious.  He keeps a Burmese girl, Ma Hla May,  that he doesn't love, doesn't even really enjoy sleeping with but else is there to do in the jungle? Then the Lackersteen's niece come to live with them.

Elizabeth is a young woman come from Paris where she was living with her mother until she died, her father having already passed.  Flory cannot contain his excitement to meet and befriend Elizabeth and kicks Ma Hla May, out.  He's callous about it but she doesn't leave without putting up a fight.

Ma Hla May knows no depths in which to debase herself to keep Flory from throwing her over.  She prostrates herself before him, cries, pleads, begs, cajoles and demands lots and lots of money.

Flory knows that Ma Hla May cares nothing for  him.  She even has her own lover, aside from Flory.  But she has told the village people she is married to him.  This gives her an elevated status.  She spends the money he gives her as fast as she can run from his house to the market to buy garish trinkets and sarongs that she adorns herself with and parades herself in front of the other villagers.  This is what she is pleading for.  Not love, position.

Flory knows he should put his foot down.  But he feels guilty.  So he continually plies her with the rupees she demands just to make her leave.

After that, he spends money on himself to look more like a gentleman.  Then he introduces himself to Elizabeth.  They go for long walks together, to the market, to native dances.  By her side, Flory talks continually, poetically, of his experiences in the jungle, the natives, the customs, culture all of which he appreciates and enjoys.  He is desperately lonely and this young woman is the life raft that he clings too.

Too bad Elizabeth is too close-minded to appreciate it.  Orwell makes a commentary on human nature.  Whether he believes this or he's simply trying to explain his characters' attitudes, I'm not sure.  He states that whatever happens to someone, albeit ever briefly, in their formative years, this will shape and color a person's thinking for the rest of their life.

Flory has an purple-blackish birthmark that covers one side of his face.  He was tormented for it when  a school boy and has allowed his disfigurement to determine his self worth.  It doesn't, however, deter him from pursuing Elizabeth, his loneliness overriding his usual diffidence.

For her part, Elizabeth spent two years in a school for rich girls.  Her parents weren't rich but lived extravagantly.  They weren't able to keep it up and soon sunk into financial straits.  Elizabeth spends the rest of her life comparing her circumstances and the people she meets to those two years around the privileged upper class.  Therefore, if one wasn't interested in sports, hunting and spending scads of money, you fell under her category of "beastly" and boring.

Flory is well read and a deep thinker.  Needless to say Elizabeth finds him uninteresting, even offensive.  His desperate need for a companion blinds him to this fact and while he perceives her displeasure he can't arrive at why.

But Elizabeth is out to get married.  Her aunt has made it very clear that her stay with them is only until she achieves this goal.  Since Flory is the only game in town, she determines to settle for him.  It all seems a cinch, although I can't imagine Flory being satisfied with such a simpleton for long.

It isn't meant to be, however.  A young hot shot Lieutenant and youngest son of a Lord has arrived with the Indian policemen.  Lieutenant Verrall is good looking and that's the only nice thing anyone can say about him.  He's cold, rude, offensive, prideful and anti-social. 

This doesn't stop Elizabeth and Mrs. Lackersteen from snubbing Flory and chasing after Verrall.  Verrall finally notices Elizabeth and they spend all their evenings together.  This almost drives Flory mad with despair.

Elizabeth and her aunt wait for the marriage proposal that is sure to come any day now.  It doesn't come.  It never comes.  Verrall loathes women.  Elizabeth was merely his temporary amusement.  When he's transferred, he leaves without telling anyone.

During all this, a riot occurs.  This riot is no random act of frustration and gnashing of teeth by the natives.  It has all been orchestrated by U Po Kyin.  U Po Kyin is a local magistrate and there aren't enough words in the English vocabulary to describe what a two-faced, treacherous, hateful, spiteful, disgusting, overgrown, conniving weasel and hugely successful magistrate he is.

He is a master of destroying men's lives both Burmese and British.  Through blackmail, bribery, anonymous letters, thievery and betrayal U Po Kyin works his way up the ladder of political echelon. His adversary is Dr. Veraswami who is as kind and innocent as U Po Kyin is evil. 

Flory and Veraswami are great friends and enjoy debating over the virtues of the British Raj.  Ironically, Dr. Veraswami argues in favor of the English presence in Burma, and English people in general while Flory insists they are nothing more than a  blooding-sucking colonial power. 

U Po Kyin makes it his mission to destroy Dr. Veraswami and Veraswami knows this.  He pleads with Flory to elect him to the English country club because it would elevate his status in the community and immunize him against U  Po Kyin's schemes.

At first, Flory cowardly refuses to stand up to the other members of the club, but when a second riot breaks out -one not planned by U Po Kyin- Flory develops a temporary backbone, single-handedly quells the mob, and demands that Veraswami be elected as the token non white member to the club.

Everything seems to work out well.  Elizabeth has returned to Flory after Verrall's desertion and Veraswami is going to become a member of the club.  Then Ma Hla May makes an atrocious scene in the middle of a church service demanding money from Flory.  She purposely has made herself as hideous and terrible looking as possible and acts like a crazy person.  She has to be dragged out of the building.  Flory isn't up to the occasion.  To make matters worse, his face turns so pale that his birthmark stands out in dark contrast.

This is what Elizabeth cannot forgive him for.  Not having a mistress but for having such an ugly birthmark so grotesquely standing out.  She coldly dismisses him.  Flory returns to his house and shoots himself.

Because suicide is taboo in Burmese culture, Veraswami's reputation also sinks because of his association with Flory.  He is not elected to the club but is transferred to some remote hospital dump to practice medicine the rest of his life.

And you can guess who put Ma Hla May up to it.

U Po Kyin is elected to the club and eventually earns the title of Deputy Commissioner.  Everything goes according to his plan.  He cheats people, abuses young women, ruins people's careers and even causes the deaths of his fellow Burmese.  His wife chides him for his evil acts insisting that he will come back in the next life as a rat or snake.

U Po Kyin is not concerned.  He has been saving up money to build pagodas at the end of his life to earn his way up to Nirvana.

I find U Po Kyin's attitude very interesting.  Apparently he believes in the effectiveness of lip service.  He seems to think that it doesn't matter how black one's heart is as long as one performs the correct deeds he will be rewarded the prize of the virtuous.

He drops dead of a heart attack three days after being elected Deputy Commissioner, before he is able to build the pagodas.  One can form their own conclusions.  Is he scurrying around as a rat or a snake?  Can a rodent or reptile act in a way that would merit coming back as a higher life form after it dies?  I've never seen a virtuous snake or rat.  Or any animal. Certainly not my dogs. They'd be returning as roaches.

I'm reminded of Mark 8:36What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world just to lose his soul?

The other question is, how accurate a portrayal does Orwell provide of the British colonialists?   Is this a rather heavy slathering of the very worst in human nature or is Orwell being objective? 

I agree with Graham Greene when he criticized Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster for creating characters who "wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin...there was no sense of reality in their lose sight of 'the religious sense' was also to lose any 'sense of importance of the human act.'

Evelyn Waugh said, "Without God, an author could not give his characters reality and depth."  I believe this is the answer.  Neither Forster or Orwell create characters with much redeeming value and I've never met such a person.  

As Pierre discovered in War and Peace,  it is by first loving people one invariably finds things to love about them.

And yet, I found Orwell's characters fascinating even if they were types and caricatures rather than real.  He draws so well and with such logical precision.  If I disagree with his outlook, I appreciate his ability to express it.

This is the first of three novels by George Orwell that I will be reviewing.  The other two, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air will be posted as soon as I finish reading them.



  1. Another great post Sharon. Even when I disagree a bit, I find your views well thought out and thought provoking.

    I have not read this but I have read Nineteen Eighty For and Animal Farm. In those novels also I find that Orwell did not create the most complex or realistic characters.

    Also in those nooks, as important as some of his messages are, he seemed overwhelmed with despair over the human condition. Your commentary here leads me to believe that there is a sense of this in this book too.

  2. Hi Brian. I agree. Orwell was rather limited in his outlook on humanity. His people in Burmese Days were not at all likeable. I think he was trying to smite the British with shame for their racist views.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.