Burmese Days | Study Guide

George Orwell

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Burmese Days | Symbols

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Flory's Birthmark

Flory was born with a blue, crescent-shaped birthmark on his face. Because he was made fun of for it as a schoolboy in England, it has become a symbol of what sets him apart from his fellows. It provokes feelings of unworthiness, and he recalls it often in his moments of shame. And there are many such moments, such as after he has sex with his mistress Ma Hla May, an act that makes him disgusted with himself. Others treat him differently because of it as well. For example, Flory's servant Ko S'la pities Flory for the birthmark, which Ko S'la considers "a dreadful thing."

His birthmark troubles him in key moments in his relationship with Elizabeth, too. He backs away from kissing her over the jungle fowl she shot because of it. He asks her if she minds it before he intends to propose, and he cannot even bring himself to refer to the birthmark by its name. And the birthmark is like "a smear of dirt" when he gives Elizabeth the rotting leopard skin. Even though Elizabeth tells him she does not mind his birthmark, it is the one thing she recalls clearly about him while she is courting Verrall. Still, Flory makes a bigger deal out of it than she does. But when Flory's birthmark stands out on his "yellow" face during the disgraceful scene at the church with Ma Hla May, Elizabeth sees Flory for the first time as a true coward. She could forgive him any of his transgressions were he to keep them private, but his inaction during a public shaming is more than she can bear to be associated with. In the end, it is his birthmark—his shame—"that had damned him." His legacy, too, is associated with his shame. His "real epitaph was the remark" about his birthmark, and shooting himself "over a girl."

European Club

Orwell uses the European Club as a symbol for the British Empire. The Club sits in the center of town and is understood to be the seat of power, much like the British Empire. But by portraying the Club as shabby and poorly suited to the local climate, Orwell subtly comments that the British Empire, too, has seen better days. Inside the novels are "mildewed" because of the frequent rains. The billiard table is "mangy" and cannot be used because of the "hordes of flying beetles" that "littered themselves over the cloth." Instead of a refreshing place to relax, members are treated to "dusty skulls" and "tepid air."

Flory hates the Club, but mostly for the "desolating Club-chatter" and awful racist stories the others love to share. Still, being a member lends one prestige, and natives such as U Po Kyin and Ma Kin wonder at the "splendors" the Club might contain. It is U Po Kyin's greatest ambition to be the first native admitted to the Kyauktada branch of the European Club. This ambition drives the novel's plot, for U Po Kyin must ruin his main competitor, Dr. Veraswami, to win the coveted membership. Both U Po Kyin and Veraswami regard the European Club as a "remote mysterious temple, that holy of holies far harder of entry than Nirvana." For a native to gain entry would bestow unimaginable prestige.

Black Beetles

Black beetles are a symbol for living in beastly squalor, something Elizabeth wishes to avoid at all costs. Elizabeth has had a taste of the good life growing up, and her greatest fear is having to continue the life of drudgery and poverty she experienced in Paris with her mother. She comes to Burma to escape that fate, and as Mrs. Lackersteen continually hints, if Elizabeth fails to catch a husband, she could end up like an anecdotal girl who had to work as a maid in a kitchen swarming with black beetles.

Although initially charmed by Flory's "manliness," Elizabeth begins to doubt he can really offer the kind of easy, shallow life she aspires to. She is put off by his interest "in Oriental things," which she sees as "perverse, ungentlemanly, deliberate seeking after the squalid and the beastly." She is especially disgusted by the Burmese when a naked child urinates in front of her in a tea shop. She finds the act utterly uncivilized and is angry with Flory for making her witness it. After Ma Hla May's perverse display of revenge in the church, Elizabeth is so incensed, she would rather face the "black beetles" or even death "than to yield to a man who had been so disgraced."

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