Burmese Days | Study Guide

George Orwell

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Burmese Days | Plot Summary

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Summary

Natives Wish to Join the European Club

In the upper Burma outpost of Kyauktada in the waning days of British colonialism, a handful of Europeans get together regularly in their exclusive European Club to drink alcohol and complain about the natives. One such native, U Po Kyin, connives to gain membership to this club after finding out that the Europeans must elect one native member. The natural choice would be Dr. Veraswami, the Indian Civil Surgeon and the jail superintendent. U Po Kyin plots to ruin Dr. Veraswami's character and to make himself appear loyal and essential to the British so he will be elected instead. What troubles U Po Kyin most is Dr. Veraswami's friendship with Flory, a British timber merchant. Simply being seen in the company of a white man lends prestige to any person of color.

The Club members have mixed opinions regarding native membership. Westfield and Mr. Macgregor seem resigned to it, if not necessarily supportive. Ellis is outspokenly against the idea and badgers the others into agreeing with him. Mr. and Mrs. Lackersteen are too self-absorbed to really care, and Maxwell is too new to the country to have much of a voice. Only Flory believes Dr. Veraswami should be made a member, but he is too cowardly to speak up against Ellis.

Dr. Veraswami warns Flory about U Po Kyin, saying he is a dangerous crocodile. Flory is not worried on his own behalf; as a white man, he feels invulnerable. But he does not want to quarrel with the other members, particularly Ellis, to secure Veraswami's place in the Club. He justifies this attitude by dismissing U Po Kyin's plans as "native business" he should not get involved in.

A Distraction for Flory

Meanwhile the Lackersteens' niece, Elizabeth, comes to live with them after her parents die. She intends to find a husband. After a year at a posh boarding school, Elizabeth has developed a taste for the finer things in life and detests her life of drudgery in Paris. She does not want to be anything like her mother, who played at being an artist; Elizabeth abhors anything "highbrow."

While he is out walking, Flory hears Elizabeth screaming, and he "rescues" her from a water buffalo. Elizabeth is grateful and comes to sit on his veranda. While they talk, Flory's Burmese mistress, Ma Hla May, shows up, and Flory orders her to leave. Flory lies to Elizabeth, claiming Ma Hla May is his laundress. He later kicks Ma Hla May out. Elizabeth and Flory start spending more time together, and he tries to interest her in Burmese culture by taking her to a native dance performance and to market day at the bazaar. Elizabeth does not understand why he seems to favor the natives. She considers them hideous and awful.

Complications to Everyone's Plans

U Po Kyin works on in his campaign against Dr. Veraswami, writing many anonymous letters to besmirch him and helping a dangerous convict escape Veraswami's prison. He also sows the seeds of a peasant rebellion. He plans to squelch it and, thus, win glory. After receiving U Po Kyin's letter, Flory avoids Dr. Veraswami. Flory finally visits him after two weeks; he apologizes and promises to suggest Dr. Veraswami for membership at the June meeting.

Ma Hla May visits Flory and begs him to take her back, but he turns her away. Flory and Elizabeth have a successful shooting trip, bringing home a leopard as a trophy. He promises to have the skin prepared for her as a gift. The next day, as Flory tries to propose to Elizabeth, an earthquake interrupts him. When Flory goes to the Club the next day to try again, he encounters Verrall, an officer with the Military Police who has been sent to town to help quell the threat of a peasant rebellion. While reading the Civil List, which lists the salary of every official in Burma, Mrs. Lackersteen discovers that Verrall has a title. This makes her believe Verrall is a better match for Elizabeth. To end Elizabeth's relationship with Flory, Mrs. Lackersteen tells her about Flory's mistress. Flory does not understand why Elizabeth snubs him after he falls from one of Verrall's ponies.

Flory's Hopes of Marriage Are Dashed

At the Club, Flory confronts Elizabeth, and she tells him she knows about Ma Hla May. He leaves, ashamed, thinking of all the Burmese women he has used for his own pleasure. Ma Hla May demands money, and he gives it to her to avoid a scene. He finally returns to the jungle to focus on his job. Elizabeth and Mrs. Lackersteen are frustrated because Verrall snubs everyone. They finally corner him, and he starts spending time with Elizabeth, riding ponies and dancing at the Club. When Flory returns, he discovers that the leopard skin has rotted, but he delivers it to Elizabeth anyway. Elizabeth will not allow Flory to speak seriously with her. She informs him that she is seeing Verrall. Flory reacts by drinking, weeping, and returning to the jungle to dull his pain in work.

U Po Kyin's rebellion finally breaks out. Maxwell shoots and kills a villager, and U Po Kyin takes credit for putting down the rebellion. Elizabeth is captivated by Verrall and hopes for a quick proposal. When it does not come, Mrs. Lackersteen gets anxious and hints that Flory might be Elizabeth's only chance.

Flory Finds and Then Loses His Courage

At the Club's June meeting, Flory proposes Dr. Veraswami as a member. Before the vote, the members learn that Maxwell was killed by natives. Upset that natives dared to kill a white man, Ellis takes it out on some native boys, blinding one of them. When a native mob shows up at the Club demanding justice, Mr. Macgregor refuses to hand over Ellis. Flory breaks up the mob by sneaking out of the Club and ordering the military police to shoot over the crowd's heads. Both Flory and Dr. Veraswami, who assisted him, are hailed as heroes.

With Dr. Veraswami's membership assured, Flory returns to the jungle. U Po Kyin, frustrated because his plans have been thwarted, comes up with the perfect way to attack Flory directly. When Flory returns from the jungle, he meets Elizabeth at the church. She is resigned to marrying him, and during the church service he thinks of their future life together. His happy reverie is dashed by Ma Hla May's entrance. She creates a disgraceful scene, paid for by U Po Kyin. Elizabeth refuses to marry Flory, and he goes home to commit suicide.

U Po Kyin Achieves Almost All His Goals

With Flory out of the way, U Po Kyin is successful in his campaign against Dr. Veraswami. Rumored to be a scoundrel of the worst sort, Veraswami is demoted and sent to Mandalay. Ma Hla May also ends up in Mandalay as a cheap prostitute. U Po Kyin is admitted as the European Club of Kyauktada's first native member. Soon after, however, he dies—before he can begin building his glorious pagodas to balance out his evil deeds. According to his Buddhist religion, he is likely reincarnated as a rat. Finally, after waiting a decent amount of time out of respect for Flory, Macgregor decides he will propose to Elizabeth. She happily accepts.

Burmese Days Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 U Po Kyin sets his conspiracy in motion.

Rising Action

2 Dr. Veraswami tells Flory about U Po Kyin's plot.

3 Elizabeth arrives in town, consuming Flory's attention.

4 Flory kicks out Ma Hla May to earn Elizabeth's respect.

5 An earthquake interrupts Flory's proposal to Elizabeth.

6 Verrall captures Elizabeth's attention; she shuns Flory.

7 Verrall leaves; Elizabeth softens toward Flory.

8 Flory nominates Dr. Veraswami as a club member.

9 Ellis provokes a native rebellion; Flory acts heroically.

10 Thwarted, U Po Kyin targets Flory directly.

Climax

11 Ma Hla May causes a scene at church, shaming Flory.

Falling Action

12 Elizabeth rejects Flory; he commits suicide.

13 Without Flory, Dr. Veraswami is sent away, disgraced.

14 U Po Kyin becomes the European Club's first native member.

Resolution

15 Elizabeth marries Mr. Macgregor.

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