Burmese Days

Burmese Days Themes


Orwell's feelings on imperialism are complicated. On the one hand, he is keenly aware of its deleterious effects on both the colonizers and the colonized, and, through the words of Flory, is able to articulate the hypocritical and specious behavior and beliefs of the Europeans who stake their claim in the East. On the other hand, Orwell does not seem able to move fully past an imperial worldview and conceive of the natives as fully-fledged human beings. His depiction of them veers close to caricature and cipher. As a part of the imperial system once, Orwell has a modicum of sympathy for the English trapped in it, and provides some excuses for them. The reader is left with the understanding that imperialism is certainly not desirable for the natives, but that the natives themselves seem just as corrupt and/or incapable of doing anything themselves.


The men and women in this novel generally adhere to the strict gender norms of their time. Elizabeth's sole desire is to get married and live a life of ease; she does not like hard work or any pursuits that require intellectual thought. While she does embrace hunting and horseback riding, she is only somewhat skilled at the pursuits and is guided along by the men she is with. The men in the story typify the "virtues" associated with their gender: hard-drinking, womanizing, loud and coarse, fond of outdoors pursuits, and possessing authority and autonomy. While Flory veers into "feminine" territory with his emotionality, he is celebrated more when he is behaving in more "masculine" ways. A strict gender structure is of equal importance to the English as their perception of a strict hierarchy of racial and social supremacy.  


Courage is the trait that is most obviously lacking in Flory when the reader first meets him. He possesses numerous opinions but rarely gives voice to them. He knows he should be a more vocal advocate for his friend the doctor, but cannot bring himself to do so because of the row it would result in. He does not really care for Ma Hla May but does not get rid of her. He is lonely and unhappy but does nothing to change that. However, as the novel progresses, Flory finds his courage. This is mostly due to the presence of Elizabeth, a character otherwise unlikeable but significant in that she is a catalyst for Flory's change. Once can conceive of a better life he becomes more vocal about his opinions and support for the doctor. And once Elizabeth spurns him, he finds the ability to do right by his conscience and nominate the doctor, help put down the rebellion, and go after Elizabeth once more.


Flory certainly knows enough about himself to ascertain that he is lonely, but he does not know just how much that loneliness motivates him to do certain things. He convinces himself he is in love with Elizabeth and that their life together would be pleasant and would solve all of his worries. He cannot see that they would actually be terrible together and would live a miserable life as man and wife. He cannot accurately read his situation and begins to ignore some of the other realities of his life, such as the fact that U Po Kyin is coming after him. He is also torn between his identity as an Englishman and as a critic of imperialism, never quite reconciling those two and ultimately dooming himself. His lack of self-awareness is thus responsible for his fate.  


Imperialism does not cause racism, but it is helped along by it. Throughout the text the Europeans display varying degrees of racism. There is Ellis, who considers the natives to be inherently inferior and uses all manner of insult to express his perspective. There are others that are not as openly contemptuous but no doubt view the natives as less civilized, although not as base or brutish. Then there are those that do not see much difference between the races, and, in Flory's case, even find something to admire in their culture. Racist sentiments ultimately help preserve the colonial experiment, of course, because they provide a foundation to base oppression of the Burmese upon. If they are perceived as inferior to some degree, then the English are more legitimate in their behavior there.


The Europeans are surrounded by the natural world of Burma but care little for its beauty, dwelling on its intense, oppressive heat. It is almost as if the natural world is doing its best to make life difficult for these interlopers. Flory, on the other hand, embraces nature, preferring to spend time running through the jungle and swimming in the streams. He is certainly afflicted by the heat, but is able to have a greater appreciation for his surroundings. And while he does enjoy the hunt, he has a greater sympathy for the animals that are killed than some of the others do. Nature in this novel is thus an extension of Burma itself -- hostile in the perspectives of some, and invigorating and worthy of admiration to others.  


The novel is ambivalent when it comes to the cultures of the Burmese and the English. The English appear to offer very little in terms of culture; all the glories of their literature, music, philosophy, and art are muted by their laziness, tyranny, ignorance, and hypocrisy. It is unlikely one could claim from this novel that the English offer much to the Burmese in terms of their esteemed Western civilization. However, Orwell cannot quite bring himself to unabashedly celebrate the culture of the Burmese either. The famous pwe, which so unnerves Elizabeth and delights Flory, is depicted as both fantastical and grotesque. It is there to gawk at, to marvel at its "exoticism.” The Burmese culture is not discussed in terms of its own merits, but figures as a spectacle for the English. One wonders if Veraswami's words about the dearth of Burmese culture and civilization are slightly believed by Orwell. Thus, neither culture is entirely esteemed or denigrated, but rather offer interesting insights into Orwell's own mind in regards to imperialism.