Burmese Days

Burmese Days Study Guide

Burmese Days is George Orwell's first novel, and a searing critique of British imperialism. It is notable for deriving its plot and themes from the events of Orwell's own life.

In 1922 Orwell traveled to Burma to become an English police officer. He chose Burma because he had familial relations there, and remained there until 1927 when he retired from the Imperial Police to become a writer. Orwell experienced a great deal of resentment from the natives due to the growing nationalist sentiment, and details some of that in the novel. He later said that "the landscapes of Burma, which, when I was among them, so appalled me as to assume the quality of nightmare, afterward stayed so hauntingly in my mind that I was obliged to write a novel about them to get rid of them." Orwell's last station was Katha, which was the inspiration for the fictional Kyauktada. Small incidents within the novel were culled from Orwell's own Burmese days; like the situation with Ellis and the native boys in the jungle, a young Burmese boy jostled Orwell on a train and Orwell became furious and almost hit him with his cane. There is also anecdotal evidence that Orwell may have visited brothels in Burma.

Orwell wrote a few pieces about a character named John Flory, the protagonist in Burmese Days, in the late 1920s. He was bolstered by the success of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and began to write Burmese Days while living in Paris. His publisher of Down and Out, Victor Gollancz, was nervous to publish the new work for fear of libel. Harpers in the United States agreed to publish it in 1934, and Gollancz finally came around in 1935, on the condition that Orwell had to state that it was not based on real people. After this background check was completed, Gollancz brought the novel out on June 24th, 1935.

There was some criticism among English readers and critics, especially those who had spent time in Burma. A letter of Orwell's from 1946 was defensive: "I dare say it's unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen." In America reviews were mixed. Cyril Connolly, a once-friend of Orwell, wrote a favorable review (the men renewed their friendship after this), noting, "Burmese Days is an admirable novel. It is a crisp, fierce, and almost boisterous attack on the Anglo-Indian. The author loves Burma, he goes to great length to describe the vices of the Burmese and the horror of the climate, but he loves it..." Others, like the reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune Books page, wrote of the "ghastly vulgarity of the third-rate characters."

Modern critics also hold mixed views, with Frederick Karl writing that it has "conflicts sufficiently dramatized to raise social protest to literature" and saying further that "as Orwell recognized in writing this novel, tragedy must be conceived in individual and not social terms"; however, Terry Eagleton says that it is not as potent of a critique on imperialism as it should have been, for it is less about critiquing imperialism than "an exploration of private guilt, incommunicable loneliness, and a loss of identity."

The book is certainly not as popular as Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, but it is still read in some college courses, especially alongside Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and E.M. Forster's A Passage to India.