Burmese Days

Burmese Days Summary and Analysis of Chapters XXI-XXV


It is June and the rains have not yet begun. The meeting to discuss a possible native member is scheduled; Maxwell and Verrall will not be there but the rest will. Flory asks about the rebellion but Westfield says all is quiet in the district.

They go inside and the meeting begins. Flory privately thinks how there will be a tremendous row when he nominates the doctor. Macgregor brings up the native-in-the-Club situation, and explains that if it is unanimous they do not have to do it. Everyone expresses relief, but Flory stands up, heart pounding, and says he wants to propose Dr. Veraswami for the Club. There is a yell of anger from the others and they begin criticizing Flory and demanding he take it back. He refuses.

As they argue, a small boat landing and one of Maxwell’s Forest Rangers disembarking catch their attention. They see four peasants lift a bundle out of the boat and bring it to shore. The Burmese bring it in and the men know what it is before even opening it up –it is Maxwell's body, cut to pieces.

Maxwell's death is shocking to Burma. No one cared too much for him personally, but for a white man to be killed was terrifying and shocking. The funeral is the next morning and all the men's faces look old and worn. Everyone treats Flory poorly; "the murder had made his disloyalty of last night seem somehow horrible" (239).

After the funeral, everyone goes his or her separate ways for a bit. Ellis wanders into the jungle, irate at what it going on. He encounters four teenaged Burmese boys who mock him. Ellis has no patience for it and hits one in the face. The others try to retaliate but he is stronger than they are, and they scatter once constables up the road begin to come see what happened. Ellis feels triumphant and boasts of his besting the boys.

The Europeans, except Westfield and Verrall, who are still away, meet at the Club that evening. They consider having their dinner brought there, and as they discuss this, thumps are heard on the roof. The butler rushes in and says a crowd of Burmese is outside. Macgregor says they have to face them, so they open the door to about twenty Burmese on the path but at least two thousand swarming behind with sticks in their hands.

One of the Burmese says they have come for Ellis since he blinded the young boy. Macgregor insults them and tells them to go away, and a volley of stones and sticks fly at the Europeans. They hysterically retreat inside.

Cut off, they wonder what to do. No one thinks to blame Ellis. Rocks continue to fly inside and one hits Elizabeth's elbow. Her aunt is frantic but she retains her calm until the rock; she then begins to cry and holds onto Flory. They realize they are cut off, surrounded on three sides with the river on the other.

Flory bursts out that the river will save them -- he will run outside, they will not follow him, and he will swim to the police lines not too far away. Flory successfully runs outside and the Burmese are first surprised, then see that he is not Ellis and let him go. He plunges into the water and is carried downstream. He finally gets to the Military Police lines but sees that the 150 men, civil and military, were utterly engulfed in the crowd of Burmese. Flory gets out and is immediately swallowed up into the crowd of swelling people.

The Burmese do not know what to do with their riot. Some insult him but others just look at him, and he wonders if he is fighting for his life or merely trying to get through a crowd. He gets to a Military Police leader and yells to him, asking why he did not open fire. The man says he did not have orders. Flory instructs him and others to get rifles and ammunition, and then tells him, in defiance of Macgregor's words as he left the Club, to fire over the heads of the crowd, not at them. The Police obey and the crowd flings themselves down in panic and starts to disperse.

Flory encounters Dr. Veraswami, who has been helping restrain the crowd. As they talk, U Po Kyin saunters up, and congratulates Flory on helping him with putting down the rebellion. Flory is disgusted and angry, but U Po Kyin smugly continues in this vein. The three men walk back to the Club and it begins to rain.

The next day things are quiet. No houses were plundered and no other Europeans dead. Westfield and Verrall return. The rain seems to be full of healing powers.

The doctor tells Flory excitedly that U Po Kyin seems vanquished, as Flory is the hero of the district and he is Flory's friend. Flory is proud of himself.

He heads to the Club later and finds Elizabeth on the side veranda. She is gentle and kind to him and he kisses her. She breaks free and runs away, but does not seem mad. Inside the Club he is lauded as a hero, and gets to say a few words on the doctor's behalf.

Flory has to return to camp, but feels a sense of peace, as he is no longer envious of Verrall. He is certain the young man is only using her and will soon leave.

U Po Kyin is furious at this riot that he did not know anything about. He calls a war council –his wife, Ba Sein, and Hla Pe, a young man –and explodes that he must get rid of Flory. He pauses and tries to think of what to do. Not two minutes later his face glows with glee. He shares his plan and everyone sees how it is too good to be resisted.

The rain continues incessantly. Elizabeth is worried because Verrall has said nothing to her about marriage, and the news comes that he will be leaving soon. Everything is the same between them and the wait is excruciating. Plus, her uncle is even more lecherous than usual.

One morning a new young man comes into the Club. Large, loud, and jovial, he explains that he has replaced Verrall who is already gone. Elizabeth and her aunt are utterly horrified, and immediately take Mrs. Lackersteen's rickshaw down to the train station. The train is gone; it seems Verrall convinced them to leave early. Elizabeth is pale and feels sick. Later that evening her aunt remarks genially that Flory should be home soon.

One evening the Christians of Kyauktada gather at the church for evening service. Church is held every six weeks and is an important social event. Elizabeth joins Flory and looks as if she had been crying. He asks her simply if Verrall is gone and she replies yes. She lets him kiss her.

The service begins. Flory is pleased to be sitting next to Elizabeth and lets his mind wander to what their life would be like once they were married. He imagines how much fun they would have and what their house would look like; he plans to have a piano even though he does not play.

As the padre talks a scream is heard. Everyone twists in their seats and sees Ma Hla May, ragged and crazed, come in. She shrieks about all the terrible things Flory did to her and starts to tear her clothes. Flory is mortified. Two men drag the woman away, but the damage is done –"The scene had been so violent, so squalid, that everyone was upset by it" (274). Flory repulses Elizabeth, for when she looks at him she can only see his horrid, bright birthmark. She thinks the mark is "dishonouring" and "unforgivable" (274). Thus, U Po Kyin has his great triumph.

Flory tries to talk to Elizabeth but she refuses. She is cold, heartless, and pretends like there was nothing between them. Her words are cutting, and no matter how much Flory begs, she tries to get away from him. He suddenly realizes she will never forgive him and will never marry him. He tries to ask her but she cruelly refuses him and begins to cry. He despairs, "'You should have had a piano'" (278) and she says icily, "'I don't play the piano'" (278). It is over; he lets her go. His birthmark was what truly damned him, not his conduct.

Flory heads home under a darkening sky –he knows what must be done. He thinks about if he can keep living, but he knows he cannot; Elizabeth has changed everything and his old life is intolerable. He gets his gun, first shoots Flo, the dog, and then kills himself. Ko S'la finds him and tells the other servants; then the doctor arrives. He weeps profusely over Flory. He then tells the servant that no one must know it was a suicide -- it is to be an accident.

No one is truly surprised; there are a lot of suicides in Burma among the Europeans. Many things happen in the aftermath. Dr. Veraswami is ruined, and eventually is transferred to a lesser hospital in Mandalay. Ko S'la and Ba Pe have to go into service even though Flory left Ko S'la money. Ma Hla May goes into a brothel and is paid little and often beat. U Po Kyin's dreams come true; he is made a member of the Club and is decorated by the Indian government for his loyal service and putting down the rebellion. However, he dies three days later, before he can start atoning for his behavior, and it is clear he will never come back to life as a man, but is in hell or returned to earth as a rat. Elizabeth ends up marrying Macgregor, who proposes right as she begins to think she will have to go back to England unmarried. She and Macgregor are happy together, and "she fills with complete success the position for which Nature had designed her from the first, that of a burra memsahib" (287).


There is a lot to discuss in this last section: Flory’s heroism and his demise, the native rebellion, and the fates of the characters. In regards to the first, Flory is finally able to redeem his lesser traits in two ways –proposing the doctor’s name for admittance to the Club, and for his courageous behavior during the native uprising. He is finally able to gain the courage to propose Veraswami only because Elizabeth rejected him and he no longer cares what people in the Club think, but that should not obscure the fact that his action is noble and worthy of approbation. He even realizes that it will be hard, but feels such a strong sense of his conscience that he can act no other way: “How he wished he had never given the doctor that promise! No matter, he had given it, and he could not break it. So short a time ago he would have broken it…But not now” (234).

What is even more admirable about Flory in this section is his behavior during the uprising. Flory is the one who has the idea of how to save the Europeans, and the one who executes it. He does not think about Elizabeth or his own pride or his birthmark or anything other than how to accomplish his aim. Furthermore, once he arrives at the crowd of Burmese and is able to command the sepoys, he chooses the humane command of having them shoot above the heads of the crowd, not at them as Macgregor told him to do. Flory has a much more nuanced appreciation for the humanity of all people, even the natives, and manages to convey his decentness even amid a truly chaotic and destabilizing situation.

The reader can be forgiven for assuming that Orwell has decided to favor his erstwhile protagonist and bestow upon him the desire of his heart –a life with Elizabeth, devoid of loneliness –but unfortunately Orwell’s final commentary on the matter is that, according to scholar Edward Quinn, “working within the larger system, derived from the fact of imperialism, you cannot have it both ways. Flory wants to be a rebel and he wants Elizabeth, the perfect embodiment of colonialism. Her rejection of him finally rests upon her recognition of his birthmark, seeing it for the first time as the mark of an outsider, someone who will never be ‘one of us’.” That last scene with the birthmark in all of its terrible glory is one of the most tragic of the novel. It is an indicator of the classic trope of literature –the hubris of the protagonist dooming him just as he is content in his success. Scholar Alok Rai explains that the birthmark was always a mark of his difference from other Europeans, but that Orwell was ambivalent about it: sometimes it was not just a mark of difference but also of weakness or abnormality. He notes how “the symbolic significance of his birthmark becomes clearer through his death” because it fades away.

To return to the native uprising itself, which, as mentioned in the previous analysis, was based on true events that occurred in 1920s Burma, Orwell seems to be ambivalent. He certainly spares no criticism of imperialism throughout the novel, and Ellis’s horrid behavior and the disastrous system of colonialism itself give legitimacy to the rebellion, but it is important to note that the author does not render the natives themselves in any particularly realistic or sympathetic way. The rebelling natives seem disorganized, oafish, and full of inchoate and haphazardly carried-out ideas. The main native characters, Veraswami and U Po Kyin, are caricatures of the sycophantic native and the wily, corrupt native. They represent the outermost poles on the character spectrum and are never quite fully recognizable as fully-fledged human beings.

This ambivalence about the colonial system is also seen in the depiction of Verrall (see the previous analysis), Flory’s awkward status as a rather lame protagonist, and Orwell’s own vacillation in the text between strong denunciations of colonialism and his occasional authorial aside in which he seems to identify himself with it and slightly forgive the English for acting the way they do. Marxist critic Terry Eagleton observed, “Burmese Days is really less a considered critique of imperialism than an exploration of private guilt, incommunicable loneliness, and a loss of identity, for which Burma becomes…little more than a setting.” Truly, as Quinn writes, “the novel sees imperialism primarily in terms of its impact on the colonizers while thrusting the colonized into the background.” It is up to the reader to decide whether or not this fact is completely damning or if it means that the novel is still valuable; regardless of one’s opinion, the ambiguities and ambivalences of Orwell’s views necessitate reflection.

Finally, the story's coda regarding the fates of his major characters is fitting. It is entirely understandable that the doctor, while a sympathetic character, would lose his preeminence because he was associated with Flory (a native’s rise and fall in Burma was often connected to white men). It is also believable that U Po Kyin continued to gain in stature because he knew how to work the system, but Orwell could not resist giving the “crocodile” his comeuppance and leaving him with an ignoble afterlife. As for Elizabeth, her fate is also believable, although perhaps some readers would have wanted her to be more heavily punished for her snobbishness and capriciousness. Orwell notes wryly in the last sentence of the novel that “she fills with complete success the position for which Nature had designed her from the first –that of a burra memsahib” (287). By “Nature” Orwell means both her gender and racial/ethnic background, constructed by the patriarchal and imperialist English society to render her fit only for marriage and possessing ideas about Western superiority. Ma Hla May may have the saddest fate of all, but one that is also believable because of the ways in which she was manipulated and treated poorly by men both English and native within the imperial system.