Burmese Days | Study Guide

George Orwell

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Burmese Days | Themes

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Loneliness and Connection

Flory often thinks of his "bitter loneliness," and he longs to connect with someone else on a deeper level. By necessity, Flory has separated his public self from his private self. He suffers from an identity crisis as a British citizen who must act like an imperialist even though he does not approve of imperialist ideology. In public, he allows himself to be badgered into going along with the majority racist opinion, while in private he appreciates Burma and Burmese culture. His own ingrained racism means he cannot fathom being able to connect with anyone other than another white person. He may share his "seditious" views on the British Empire with his friend, Dr. Veraswami, but he can envision only someone white like Elizabeth being his true companion.

Flory's loneliness is deepened by the strict gender norms of the times. Elizabeth has one goal, to marry well. She lacks depth and a desire to better herself with hard work or a quest for knowledge. Flory's willful blindness to Elizabeth's shallowness keeps him in denial about his basic incompatibility with her. He tries to mold her into what he needs her to be, a confidant who will see Burma "with eyes something like [his] own." Burma has been "a kind of solitary hell" to Flory because he does not fit in with the other British. Thus he decides to overlook Elizabeth's disgust with his interest "in Oriental things," which she sees as a "perverse, ungentlemanly, deliberate seeking after the squalid and the beastly." Till the end he tells himself she is "the sole person on earth who could save" him from "the decay, the loneliness, the self-pity" of his life. And because he continues to believe this lie, he feels he must end his wretched life when she rejects him.

At one point Flory tells Elizabeth the loneliness of having no one with whom to share "a load of memories" is "the price we pay for coming to this country." With this statement, Orwell encapsulates Flory's identity crisis. This tension between wanting to avoid conflict and wanting to act honorably causes Flory great shame because he almost always chooses the former. In the end, he pays with of his life.

Power's Corrupting Nature

Orwell references Rudyard Kipling's "The White Man's Burden," a poem that justifies imperialism. The assertion is that it is the duty of the English or "white man" to better nonwhite societies by introducing Christianity and English social norms. This "moral obligation" leads to the exploitation and potential extinction of many nonwhite societies. Orwell's use of Kipling's work highlights that imperialism is by its very nature corrupt, and the corruption stems from the imbalance of power. Orwell cleverly uses the backdrop of British colonialism in Burma to explore the many ways in which power can corrupt. As Flory tells Veraswami, he and his "fellow Empire-builders" might be "almost bearable if [they'd] only admit that [they're] thieves" instead of pretending to "uplift" the natives. As it stands, the British there, including Flory, are "living a lie" and the lie corrupts everything, from relationships to one's own sense of self. Most of Flory's fellows survive this kind of dishonorable life by drinking to excess and talking only about the shallowest of topics. Flory is too deep and self-reflective for that, and the shame of his abuses of power, especially toward women such as his mistress, Ma Hla May, have corrupted his soul. When he finally commits suicide, it is in part because he understands he does not have the strength necessary to be a man of honor in such a world.

Men like Ellis take advantage of their powerful standing over the natives to denigrate and abuse them. Ellis can even strike and blind a Burmese boy and be protected by his status as a white man. When the native mob demands justice, Mr. Macgregor sends them away in a rage, furious they should display such "insolence." He does not even question Ellis's version of events because his prejudice dictates that a white man is always right. Veraswami praises the Brits' "glorious loyalty to one another," but as Mr. Lackersteen proves, many echo the sentiments of the majority only to give themselves the sheen of respectability. As long as Mr. Lackersteen publicly supports the ideals of the British Empire, he feels he can allow himself his vices such as drinking and whoring.

But as Orwell shows, the British are not alone in taking advantage of a corrupt system. U Po Kyin has built his whole career by denouncing his own people in order to win favor with the ruling elite. Though he started as a lowly apprentice, by acting as a "parasite" feeding on the British, U Po Kyin has become a regional magistrate. U Po Kyin is as corrupt as they come, using his power to become "practically invulnerable" despite his evil schemes. His wife, Ma Kin, openly criticizes his evil deeds, telling him she "should not care to look back upon such a life." But U Po Kyin continues doing anything he wants to anyway; freeing convicts, inciting rebellions, impregnating young girls, anything and everything to further his aims or give him pleasure. On a smaller scale, even Ma Hla May delights in the sexual sway she holds over Flory because it gives her leverage to demand gifts and favors from him.

Honor and Shame

Flory is most ashamed of his lack of courage to live a life of honor. This shame is borne of his identity crisis: he is a cog in the imperialist machine of the British Empire, yet he also views Burma as his home. His imperialist fellows and their prevailing sentiments force him to outwardly hold to the racist party line of British superiority and white supremacy. But his inner self can appreciate the beauty and value of Burma and its people. He understands, for example, how Burmese dance has "centuries of culture ... behind it," and how "the whole life and spirit of Burma is summed up" by how a dancer twists her arm. He is disgusted by how the British exploit the natives while at the same time pretending to elevate and help them.

The only person he can confide in is Dr. Veraswami. Yet he feels safe in doing so only because he believes that Veraswami does not really understand what he is saying. Relatively enlightened though he is, Flory is still inherently racist, believing that only a white person is worthy of being his true companion. When Elizabeth arrives, Flory feels the hope of finally being able to live a life of honor while sharing his true self. But time and time again his shame holds him back and he remembers his birthmark. His birthmark is a visible reminder and powerful symbol of his shame. When he berates himself for being a "spineless cur," for example, he can "feel his birthmark palpable on his cheek."

Flory wishes he could be a man of action who is not held back by his shame. A man of action might have proposed Veraswami's name for membership in the Club from the very start, but Flory lets Ellis badger him into silence. A man of action might have proposed to Elizabeth when he had the chance instead of blabbering on and on about his loneliness. A man of action might have bundled Ma Hla May out of the church when she made her scene instead of cowering in shame, his face "as yellow as bone." But while the system put in place by imperialist Britain may reward men of action such as U Po Kyin and Verrall, men of honor such as Dr. Veraswami do not fare very well. When Flory commits suicide, perhaps he understands that he can never live a life of honor in such a corrupt world.

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