The first thing that one noticed in Flory was a hideous birthmark stretching in a ragged crescent down his left cheek, from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Seen from the left side his face had a battered, woebegone look, as though the birthmark had been a bruise -for it was a dark blue in colour. He was quite aware of its hideousness.
Flory's birthmark is an interesting symbol of both his difference and his weakness. Flory's shortcomings would be noticeable without this excrescence on his face, but it is important as the ultimate way in which Elizabeth is able to see just why she and Flory cannot be together. In terms of difference, the birthmark cements the reader's understanding that Flory is not like the rest of the Englishmen. He is embarrassed by his birthmark and tries to hide it in the same way he generally hides his true self from everyone else. In terms of weakness, the birthmark is a visual manifestation of his shortcomings in terms of lack of confidence, self-awareness, and courage. Flory is only able to forget his birthmark when he taps into those traits at last. Once Flory dies, the birthmark fades in vibrancy. This is the final indicator that the birthmark was more than just a mark on his face, but was a potent symbol of his inner life.
Any hint of friendly feeling towards an Oriental seemed to him a horrible perversity. He was an intelligent man and an able servant of his firm, but he was one of those Englishmen--common, unfortunately -who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.
Ellis is one of the most loathsome characters in a book full of characters that simply aren't that likable. He is almost one-note in his monstrous racism, prejudice, and ignorance; as the narrator puts it, he should never even be in Burma. He clearly possesses these traits already and the colonial experience exacerbates them. Perhaps if he had stayed in England they would be sublimated or even amended, but here, amid the heat and the exotic, strange colony far removed from home, Ellis feels comfortable indulging in every terrible thought or impulse. Furthermore, there is no external check on his behavior: by dint of his being European, and a minority in numbers, the other Club members let him do what he wants without censure even if they do not agree with him. During the attack on the Club, which was his fault, the English do not even think to blame him. Ellis is a prototype for numerous other Europeans during the age of imperialism, and a reminder of how the system was corrupting for the colonizers as well as the colonized.
Dull boozing witless porkers! Was it possible that they could go on week after week, year after year, repeating word for word the same evil-minded drivel, like a parody of a fifth-rate story in Blackwood's? Would none of them EVER think of anything new to say? Oh, what a place, what people! What a civilization is this of ours--this godless civilization founded on whisky, Blackwood's and the 'Bonzo' pictures! God have mercy on us, for all of us are part of it.
Flory excoriates his fellow Englishmen's "culture"; these sentiments are echoed in his conversation with Dr. Veraswami. He wonders why whiskey, Blackwoods magazine (a periodical first published in 1817), and 'Bonzo' pictures (probably referring to a popular cartoon about a dog) are considered the height of civilization, and why these lazy, apathetic, ignorant, and boring men are considered the paragons of that civilization. Flory is able to see how mundane they are and how it is false to consider England's role in Burma as a noble experiment that in turn elevates the Burmese. Flory seems to have much more respect for and interest in what the Burmese do in terms of culture, although there is some element of voyeurism and spectacle and "the other" in his interest in it.
But it is a corrupting thing to live one's real life in secret. One should live with the stream of life, not against it. It would be better to be the thickest-skulled pukka sahib who ever hiccuped over 'Forty years on', than to live silent, alone, consoling oneself in secret, sterile worlds.
Flory's main grievance in Burma is his excessive loneliness. This loneliness is ever-present and unyielding, and he feels it acutely every day. The loneliness not only derives from not having a wife to share his life with, but because he has to sublimate his true feelings about everything. He cannot be open with anyone but the doctor in regards to his feelings about Burma and the failing British Empire and how he views his fellow Europeans. He is allowed to do whatever he wants in all other regards but cannot be open or honest about his interior life. This is, quite naturally, oppressive and difficult, and leads him to make detrimental decisions (like pursuing Elizabeth), suppressing his conscience and morals, and ignoring the wise words of others.
It is so important...not to entangle oneself in 'native' quarrels. With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship. Affection, even love -yes...Even intimacy is allowable, at the right moments. But alliance, partisanship, never! Even to know the rights and wrongs of a 'native' quarrel is a loss of prestige.
Here Flory reflects on how he cannot get embroiled in the conflict with U Po Kyin and Veraswami. These words demonstrate the subtle ways in which even the most enlightened Englishman can still possess views on the natives that smack of patronization and a sense of superiority. What is okay is to love the natives like they are children, or to feel affection for them. What is not okay is to conceive of them as equals worthy of real regard and friendship. Compared to Ellis's cruel words, this seems like nothing; however, it is this more latent form of racism that keeps imperialism going. If one can always privately tell oneself that there is an unbridgeable gap in terms of intellect and civilization between Europeans and 'natives', then one can also support Social Darwinist ideas and their manifestation in continuing imperial and colonial efforts in the East.
But the whole expedition -the very notion of wanting to rub shoulders with all those smelly natives -had impressed her badly. She was perfectly certain that that was not how white men ought to behave.
This quote exemplifies Elizabeth's entire mindset. She feels uncomfortable about being too close to the natives; her experience in Burma will not be one of understanding the local culture or challenging her presuppositions. This sentiment is rooted in her set of beliefs of how the different races should interact with each other. This set of beliefs is fixed, immutable. As Flory is white, there are certain boundaries he should not cross, and when he appears to do so, Elizabeth feels a threat to her world. Clearly she is not a very open-minded person, and, to be fair, she only just arrived in Burma and has had little time to adjust her beliefs (although, in the last line of the novel Orwell tells his readers that Elizabeth is the perfect memsahib and thus not likely to change at all). Elizabeth is only one of several English characters in the text that remain stubbornly close-minded and confident in their cultural and racial superiority; this is one of the things that Orwell criticizes as one of the most obnoxious causes of imperialism.
The point was, was the doctor the kind of man who would hold seditious opinions? In India you are not judged for what you do, but for what you are.
This quote exemplifies one of the many problems of the English colony in Burma. There is a great deal of hypocrisy, vice, ignorance, and dissimulation, all of which operate on a daily basis and prop up the imperial apparatus. As U Po Kyin notes, the only thing that matters is appearances and assumptions: if people hold an opinion, it does not matter if it is based in fact or not. One's deeds and actual beliefs do not matter. There is no authenticity or truth, only facade. Flory gives voice to this sordid reality when in conversation with the doctor he breaks down the cant that surrounds the reasons for England's role in Burma; he also privately deplores the fact that he cannot be himself and speak freely. The truth of this quote is further borne out when Dr. Veraswami, a good and noble man, is doomed because of his connection to the now-unjustly reviled Flory. The artifice is yet another underpinning of the deleterious effects of imperialism.
It is a real triumph -it would be doubly so in Kyauktada -for an official of the lower ranks to worm his way into the European Club. The European Club, that remote, mysterious temple, that holy of holies far harder of entry than Nirvana! Po Kyin, the naked gutter-boy of Mandalay, the thieving clerk and obscure official, would enter that sacred place, call Europeans 'old chap', drink whisky and soda and knock white balls to and fro on the green table!
U Po Kyin's earlier inscrutable intentions are finally made clear here; now the reader understands why he must get rid of the doctor and go through all the trouble of lying and manipulation and orchestrating/quelling a fake rebellion. U Po Kyin is a one-dimensional character but this aspiration of his is important because it indicates Orwell's assumptions that the Burmese saw no greater honor than participating in English rituals and gatherings. While there were no doubt plenty of actual Indians and Burmese who believed this, it is far more likely that they deeply resented the presence of the English in their country and would not want to participate in an organization that typified the prejudices and shortcomings of the interlopers. Neither of his two native characters, however, is very critical of colonialism, and U Po Kyin's tactics, goals, and successes within the colonial system are a damning critique.
'I'll go if you like!' Ellis shouted, but Flory shook his head. He had already begun slipping his shoes off. There was obviously no time to be lost.
Not long after Flory nominates the doctor to the Club, he is able to demonstrate his second act of courage. The real rebellion breaks out and a large contingent of natives surrounds the Club and demands Ellis, and Flory both devises the plan to save them and executes it. He does so without equivocation or debate, and does not do it to impress Elizabeth or even to be a hero; rather, it is a pure and noble action that shows that Flory is capable of great things when he is not wallowing in loneliness and self-pity or trying to ignore his own wants and needs to attain the approval of someone else. Flory has come a long way from the beginning of the novel, but, sadly, it is not enough to save him.
But worse than that, worse than anything, was his ugliness at this moment. His face appalled her, it was so ghastly, rigid and old. It was like a skull. Only the birthmark seemed alive in it. She hated him now for his birthmark. She had never known till this moment how dishonouring, how unforgivable a thing it was.
This is perhaps the most tragic moment of the text. Moments before Flory was sure of his attainment of his desires, and Elizabeth had fooled herself into thinking that marrying him was a good, or perhaps the only, option. However, Ma Hla May's outburst and Flory's response to it once and for all reveal how different he is from Elizabeth. She sees this mark as a literal manifestation of all his loathsome and lamentable qualities and focuses all her prejudice and close-mindedness on it, telling herself he is simply too ugly and too low to be with. It is the birthmark that ends Flory's chances at a new life and leads him to commit suicide, but of course it is not merely the mark itself but what it represents that creates this irrevocable chasm between desire and reality.
Burmese Days Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Burmese Days is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.