George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days is set in 1920’s Burma under British colonialism. It focuses on the imperialism of the British and its effects on the relationships between the British, the British and Indians, and between the Indians themselves. The novel concentrates on the town of Kyauktada in Upper Burma.
Kyauktada is described as hot and sultry. It is a small town of about four thousand. The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants are Burmese, but there are also a hundred Indians, two Eurasians, sixty Chinese, and Seven Europeans. (Pg. 16) It is near the jungle and the Irrawaddy River. There are many trees and flowers, including honeysuckle. Though the English have jobs to perform much of their time is consumed with drinking whiskey in the Club, retreating from the ‘prickly’; heat, napping, and occasionally playing tennis or hunting. Though there is not much physical activity by the English, they do not complain about it. They do complain incessantly about the heat and about the possible acceptance of natives into their exclusively European Club.
In Burmese Days the overwhelming majority of British held themselves superior to the Burmese. They feel that it is their duty to rule over the less intelligent ‘niggers’; of Burma. Through the description of the characteristics of both the British and Burmese, Orwell helps us understand the value system through which the British have come to the conclusion that they must rule over the Burmese. An example of such a description is that of Maxwell, them acting Divisional Forest Officer. Maxwell is depicted as a ‘fresh-coloured blond youth of not more than twenty-five or six ;#8211; very young for the post he held.’; (Pg. 22) This description lends value to the light skinned and fair-haired British, though some, like Flory, have black hair. Maxwell is also very young for his post, giving the impression that he is intelligent. Mr. Lackersteen, the manger of a timber firm, though forty and slightly bloated, it described a ‘fine-looking’; with an ingenuous face. (Pg. 20- 21) This description leads us to believe British are good looking and honest.
Orwell offers us numerous descriptions of favorable characteristics of the British, but he clearly distinguishes ‘bad’; British from ‘good’; British in the same way. An example of this is Orwell’s description of Ellis, a manager of another timber company in Burma. The first description of Ellis it that of a ‘tiny wiry-haired fellow with a pale, sharp-featured face and restless movements.’; (Pg. 20) When a notice in posted in the Club that consideration will begin to allow high-ranking natives in the Club, Ellis becomes enraged. Ellis is, at all times, ‘spiteful and perverse.’; (Pg. 25) His behavior characterizes him as a ‘bad’; Englishman. It is also through Ellis’s beliefs and actions that one begins to understand the British self-image.
Ellis repeatedly refers to the natives as niggers and degrades them. When the question of allowing natives in the Club surfaces, Ellis communicates the reason that the British are in Burma is to ‘govern a set of damn black swine who’ve been slaves since the beginning of history.’; (Pg, 25) Mr. He feels it is an outrage that they are treating the natives as equals rather than ‘ruling them in the only way they understand.’; (Pg 25) Ellis continues on to berate Flory, Maxwell, and Westfield (the chief of police) for their relationships with natives. The majority of Englishmen in Burmese Days hold the belief that they are superior to the Burmese, however none do so as adamantly as Ellis.
The inferiority of the natives is related in many ways. One method Orwell uses is the description of the natives. When Ma Hla May, Flory’s mistress, and Elizabeth see another the differences between them are striking. Elizabeth is as ‘faintly colored as a apple blossom’;, while Ma Hla May is ‘dark and garish.’; This ‘meeting’; occurs on Flory’s veranda with Flory present. It is then he realizes how strange Ma Hla May’s body is. This perception of Flory’s places value on the structure and characteristics of an Englishwoman’s body thereby degrading the native’s form. The description of U Po Kyin is not favorable either. He is describes as an enormous man with teeth that are often stained blood red by betel juice. Though a successful, well off magistrate, he accepts bribes and admits that he has done much wrong in his life. In the novel he is depicted as deceitful and mean. An example of this is his attempt to frame Dr. Veraswami for writing a derogatory letter in one of the local papers. U Po Kyin also masterminds a riot to make Dr. Veraswami look bad, while at the same time making himself look life a hero. This backfires, making Dr. Veraswami a hero. U Po Kyin’s actions along with the collaboration of other Indians, characterize the native population as underhanded, lazy, and conniving.
Natives are often depicted as poor laborers or servants whose only purpose is to make the British rich and comfortable. One can best understand British feelings towards the natives through Elizabeth’s definitions of ‘good’; and ‘bad.’; She describes good or, in her words, lovely as equating ‘expensive, elegant, and aristocratic.’; Her definition of bad (beastly in her words) is ‘ the cheap, the low, the shabby, and the laborious.’; (Pg. 90) Through this definition natives are considered ‘beastly’; because they harbor ‘bad’; traits. Englishmen are exalted through these definitions because they embody ‘good’; traits.
The relationship between Flory and Dr. Veraswami is the only example of a true friendship between an Englishman and an Indian. It is the one on the only British ;#8211; Indian interactions that is not centered on the Indian serving the Englishman or on degrading the natives in some way. This is perhaps because Dr. Veraswami was educated. When Flory and the Dr met they often discussed the situation of British imperialism in Burma. While Flory is anti-English, Dr. Veraswami defends the imperialism. He states that the Burmese are helpless without the English and that without them Burma would have no trade, railways, ships, or roads. Upon the discussion of Dr. Veraswami’s possible acceptance to the Club, the doctor states that even if he were admitted to the Club, he would not dream of attending. He only desires the prestige that a member of the Club had, but he realizes that he should not actually visit the Club. Flory finds this humorous, but after this conversation he makes his opinion known to the club that the doctor should be allowed to be a member.
The disagreements in the Club about the doctor’s membership are cut short by a growing riot outside, masterminded by U Po Kyin. Dr. Veraswami proves his loyalty to the British by attempting to hold back the crowd. Though U Po Kyin states that he too was trying to restrain the crowd, the Club does not believe him. Dr. Veraswami is consequently cleared of the problems that U Po Kyin had created for him and his desire to become a member of the Club is seriously discussed. However, U Po Kyin succeeds in his quest for the membership to the Club by ruining Flory’s relationship with Elizabeth, which results in Flory killing Flo, his dog, and committing suicide. The prestige that Dr. Veraswami had possessed died with Flory. This ruined Flory, making a membership in the Club impossible. Instead U Po Kyin was elected into the Club, and became and agreeable, yet largely absent, member.
Any possibility for understanding between Englishmen and Indians dies with Flory. This is because no other Englishmen could see beyond the stereotype of Indians as conniving, lazy, uncivilized ‘niggers.’; Though Mr. Macgregor did not dislike the Indians he only found them pleasing when they had no freedoms. None of these opinions held by the Englishmen are conducive to a reciprocal, understanding relationship between the British and the Burmese. Even if the English had overcome these barriers, the natives held stereotypes of the British as power-hungry, mean, degrading, and naive. The feelings of the natives toward the British would also need to be overcome if an understanding were to be reached.