U Po Kyin, a Burmese Subdivisional Magistrate, sits on his veranda in Kyauktada. He is smug, massively fat, tan, and smooth. He reflects on his successful ascent up the professional ladder; he never makes a misstep because he judges men correctly and cares too much for intrigue to ever lapse in power. He lies and schemes now but plans to devote his later years to good works so he can return to earth after death in human male shape rather than something ignominious like a rat or frog.
His servant, Ba Taik, tells him there are several people waiting to see him. Ko Ba Sein, the head clerk of the Deputy Commissioner's office, is admitted. U Po Kyin gloats in glee over a newspaper article in the tiny rag paper, the Rangoon Gazette. It criticizes Ba Sein's boss, Mr. Macgregor, making insinuations about him. It is part of U Po Kyin's plan to ruin Dr. Veraswami, the Civil Surgeon and Superintendent of the jail. It has to be a slow, meticulous attack, and the goal is to make the Europeans think the doctor is a villain. The only thing that will turn them against him is nationalism, propaganda, and sedition. Ba Sein wonders about this plan, as Dr. Veraswami loves the Europeans, but U Po Kyin laughs that Europeans need no proof of truth to change their minds. He tells the clerk to keep an eye on Mr. Macgregor.
Later U Po Kyin's wife, Ma Kin, serves him food. He is proud of his tremendous girth and eats copiously, remembering how thin he was when he was unsuccessful. Ma Kin, a "simple, old-fashioned woman" (15) who is her husband's confidante, wonders why he wants to take down the doctor, especially as he needs no more money. U Po Kyin says the doctor stands in his way and will not take bribes.
Flory leaves his house for the club. He is thirty-five, with dark hair and a haggard complexion. The most notable thing about him is the dark birthmark on one side of his face, which makes him very self-conscious.
The club he is walking towards is like all English clubs in India – "the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain" (17). This one is even more notable for never admitting an "Oriental.” The town is typical for Upper Burma, with four thousand people, seven of whom were European. It is fairly dull and excessively hot.
Flory considers going to see the doctor first but remembers the English newspapers come in today. He heads to the Club. There he greets Mr. Westfield, the District Superintendent of Police. He goes inside the four-room club, which has a pool table, a library full of mildewed books, a card-room, and a lounge. There are three men there –Mr. Lackersteen, the local manager of a timber firm, Mr. Ellis, another manager of a timber firm, and Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer.
Mr. Lackersteen is hung-over. He is a simple man with a wife who never lets him out of her sight for more than an hour or two, as to keep him away from Burmese girls. She does not know that he finds a way to be with them.
Ellis is reading a notice from Mr. Macgregor, the secretary of the club, which posits letting natives into the club. He is viciously, cruelly, and irrationally opposed to the natives and takes every chance he gets to abuse them; he "hated them with a bitter, restless loathing as of something evil or unclean" (24). He should not be able to be in the East.
Flory is quiet. Quarrels happen every day but he tries to avoid them. The men fight, banter, and joke for a while. Mr. Macgregor and Mrs. Lackersteen arrive at the club. The former is genial and good-natured, but it seems rather studied and many men are uncomfortable around him. Mrs. Lackersteen sinks into a chair, complaining of the heat and how the natives are not as respectful as they used to be. Westfield sighs that that British Raj is over now; there is an agreement among them all that India was going to the dogs.
Ellis brings up the newspaper article. Mr. Macgregor is offended at the man's offensive language and the use of the word "nigger" to describe them, for he was very fond of the natives and thought them charming. He privately thinks how it was not his own idea to invite one into the club, but it was passed down to him from the Commissioner.
The topic is postponed and all the men, except the sulky Lackersteen because his wife is there and Mr. Macgregor who never drank before noon, drink. They all talk again of the demise of the Indian Empire.
Flory becomes annoyed and tells them he has to go. After he leaves Ellis insults him as "the niggers' pal" (33) and says he is too "Bolshie" (34). The conversation, per usual, returns to the same topics: insolent natives, bad government, the glory days of the British Raj, and so on. The narrator says, "You could forgive the Europeans a great deal of their bitterness. Living and working among Orientals would try the temper of a saint. And all of them, the officials particularly, knew what it was to be baited and insulted" (34).
The group leaves the club, stepping out into the sweltering heat. There is no wind at all, and it was "the evil time of day" (35) when things are quiet.
Flory arrives at the doctor's place. He slumps down and says he is pleased to be out of the poisonous atmosphere of the club. The doctor, who is small, stout, and wearing glasses and a white suit, happily defends the British for being great men. The two enter their time-old, friendly debate. Dr. Veraswami defends the British and Flory glumly speaks of how awful they are. He says that they are there to rob the Indians and he is tired of their "humbug" (39). He wants to make money too, but he objects to the falseness about his brethren. He says the British Empire just forces the Indians to give them trade monopolies, and the doctor returns that the British have civilized the Indians, elevated them, and brought them law and order. Flory admits that the British have modernized part of the country but also says they have wrecked the Burmese national culture. Excitedly the doctor tells him that even the worst parts of British culture are an uplift to the Burmese.
The doctor points to a poor old Burmese named Mattu and says he is an example of the degeneracy of the East. Flory has to agree, and they toss the wizened creature some coins.
The topic is changed, and Dr. Veraswami is suddenly serious as he tells his friend that there is intrigue brewing against him. He shudders and tells Flory how corrupt, how bestial, how cunning U Po Kyin is and how capable he is of ruining people. Flory listens but thinks how useless it is to get involved with native conflicts. The doctor says if only he were a member of the Club, then he would be safe from the evil magistrate.
Flory is uncomfortable because he knows he could probably push through the doctor’s membership, but he does not want to face the exhausting conflict with the others. The doctor is too polite to ask him anyway, and warns his friend to beware of the “crocodile,” as he calls the magistrate, because U Po Kyin knows they are friends.
Later Flory sleeps, idly trying to pass the afternoon. His servant Ko S’la prepares his tea. The servant and Flory grew up together and were the same age but the former always considered Flory younger since he was still a bachelor. He was fiercely loyal and even pitied his master, as he found him childish and felt sorry for his birthmark.
Flory’s mistress Ma Hla May is on her way over. Ko S’la does not approve of her. She enters, a tiny, pretty woman almost like a doll. She clings to Flory but he is annoyed with her. She has another lover but enjoys the prestige that comes from being a white man’s mistress. They make love and Flory, now disgusted, sends her away. She pouts and they fight as usual.
After she leaves, Flory wonders what to do for the rest of the day. He decides to head out for a jog in the jungle; getting a real sweat is the only way to tolerate the profound ennui that sets in during the evening. He runs through the jungle and begins to reflect on how he loves the beautiful stream and colorful flora and fauna. He is happy and peaceful but is acutely aware of his loneliness.
When he returns home, he gets ready to go out the Club to drink and play bridge, as he did most evenings. That evening he cannot sleep because of a crying dog. He grabs a gun and contemplates shooting it but cannot bring himself to.
He reflects on the terrible row that had happened at the Club that evening, which concerned the libelous article about Macgregor. Ellis was certain it was Dr. Veraswami who wrote it, and spoke volubly and bitterly about natives the whole night. Flory feels bad because he “lacked the small spark of courage that was needed” (63) to stand up for his friend.
He then begins to think about how he got to Burma. He was teased in school for a while but then became popular due to football and lying. He went to a cheap public school later and his education went downhill. He went to Burma at age nineteen after his devoted parents got him a place in a timber firm. In Rangoon he and four other young men enjoyed their sordid days of debauchery; he was “too young to realize what this life was preparing for him” (65). He got used to Burma, and became acclimated to its rhythms, weather, and patterns of life. At twenty-four, the War broke out but he avoided it because he was used to his easy life in the East. He read excessively and started to grow up. Each year grew lonelier, though, especially as he had realized the truth about the British Empire. There was no need for the Europeans to do a good job, and life was stultifying and stagnant. One could speak freely, but could do anything else they want. Life is full of lies and Flory felt like “it is a corrupting thing to live one’s life in secret” (70). He could talk openly to few people. He had never been back to England and at one point began to pine for it. He thought about marrying and bringing the girl to Burma and living there for 10-15 more years. Once he realized he actually loved Burma, he decided not to go to England –this was his home. His parents had died and he had no relationship with his sisters. He hoped for a wife who would love Burma as much as he did.
After this train of reflection, he becomes annoyed with himself, shoots the dog, and goes inside.
Burmese Days is notable not only for its commentary on imperialism, but also for the fact that it is loosely based on the events of Orwell's own life. This makes the description of the Europeans and Burmese as well as the tensions present in the waning British Raj all the more potent and insightful. The village of Kyauktada was modeled on Katha, where Orwell spent his time, and while there is no actual proof of the other characters being modeled after real people, it is certain there are some resemblances. The events of the novel might be fictional, but the reader can glean a kernel of truth in them. Interestingly enough, while Orwell maintains an omniscient and objective third-person narration throughout the text, there are a couple of places where Orwell the author peeks through. After giving a character analysis of the Europeans in the Club, he breaks into the narrative and explains, "Besides, you could forgive the Europeans a great deal of their bitterness. Living and working among Orientals would try the temper of a saint. And all of them, the officials particularly, knew what it was to be baited and insulted" (34). Clearly there is the tiniest bit of ambivalence.
This first section is important in that it introduces the characters and sets up several of the intersecting plot points. The reader is introduced to two significant Burmese men who could not differ more from each other –U Po Kyin and Dr. Veraswami. The former is a magnificent villain, corpulent and scheming and ambitious. He understands human nature and how to achieve what he wants, the latter which becomes clearer as the book continues –first, to bring down the doctor, then to attain membership in the Club. The doctor, on the other hand, is perhaps the only truly likeable person in the novel; he is kind, loyal, and hard working. While his interpretation of the Europeans' greatness is perhaps misguided, he is nonetheless a virtuous figure surrounded by other men and women encumbered by their own ignorance and prejudice. Overall, however, both of the Burmese characters border on caricature –the sly and cunning native, and the sweet and simpleminded one. Neither are fully nuanced creations.
Then, of course, there is Flory, the protagonist of the novel. Flory is nearing middle age and his physical appearance begins to reflect the brutal land around him. He has a large, dark birthmark on his face, which is something that he finds tremendously shameful; it becomes a symbol of his weakness, insecurities, and shortcomings. At this point in the novel Flory is consumed by his loneliness and the crushing burden of his awareness of how useless and harmful the British Empire is for the Burmese. One of his most conspicuous traits early in the novel is also his cowardice, or, rather, his preference to avoid conflict or a fight by mostly keeping his thoughts to himself. He rarely airs his opinion and, later, knows he is too afraid to nominate the doctor to the Club; thus, one of the themes of the novel is Flory's growth from cowardice to assertion and action. Another element of Flory's character worth noting is his ambivalence regarding the Empire. He is certainly critical of it and admires the Burmese people, something that characters like Ellis and Elizabeth find anathema, but he admits freely to Veraswami that he likes making money. Flory's account of his early years presents a picture of inertia; he does not seem to have much power to govern his own life. He seems to find himself in situations that are created for him, and then does not protest, or perhaps does so feebly, against the things he claims to have a problem with.
One of the most compelling parts of this first section is the comparison between viewpoints of Flory and Veraswami regarding imperialism. The two men are equally voracious in their opinions and offer the most basic arguments for either side. Veraswami contends that the Europeans have brought civilization, better roads, their justice system, progress, and more. Flory argues that the Europeans are wrecking the Burmese culture, erecting prisons and calling them progress, taking advantage of the Burmese and giving precedence to the Indian moneylender, and, ultimately, telling the "lie that we're here to uplift our poor black bothers instead of to rob them" (39).
Flory's opinions seem to be borne out by the Europeans he spends time with, whom he refers to as "dull boozing witless porkers!" (33) Ellis in particular is monstrous –the sort of man, Flory notes, "who should never be allowed to set foot in the East" (24). His hatred for the natives knows no bounds. He even calls them "niggers,” which is patently untrue. Ellis's vitriol is sometimes stunning in its magnitude and passion, but any student of imperialism's history knows that many white European held similar views. While the rest of the men do not share Ellis's level of prejudice, they do possess other undesirable traits that, Orwell seems keen to point out, the imperial experience exacerbates. These men might possess such flaws back at home in Britain, but here in the hot and lazy Burmese sun they are made even more manifest. This is a theme that is borne out in the text –that the Europeans can generally be decent people in some respects, but being engaged in such a patently immoral and inhumane endeavor erases those positive traits.