Burmese Days by George Orwell (1934)

By the roadside, just before you got to the jail, the fragments of a stone pagoda were littered, cracked and overthrown by the strong roots of a peepul tree. The angry carved faces of demons looked up from the grass where they had fallen. (Chapter 11)

Orwell served in the British Imperial Police Force in Burma from 1922 to 1927. He was efficient enough, won praise, but was considered an outsider by his colleagues. For example, he was one of the few officers to actually learn Burmese, becoming fluent, something they all considered odd.

In this, Orwell’s first novel, his deep familiarity with Burmese climate, flora & fauna, language and customs, is wonderfully evident throughout.

He acclimatized himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy-fields were wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yaru d-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy-fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water. Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks. Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds. The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy ripened, the Burmese children played hop-scotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the same as the English ones, but very like them – honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmans went to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold. In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wilderness, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun. At night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns looming through the mist like crescents. One had three blankets on one’s bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken. After
dinner one sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and talking about shooting. The flames danced like red holly, casting a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to the fire like dogs. As one lay in bed one could hear the dew dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain. It was a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past. (Chapter 5)

Vivid, eh?

Characters

The novel is set in the small town of Kyauktada.

Kyauktada was a fairly typical Upper Burma town, that had not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910, and might have slept in the Middle Ages for a century more if it had not proved a convenient spot for a railway terminus. In 1910 the Government made it the headquarters of a district and a seat of Progress – interpretable as a block of law courts, with their army of fat but ravenous pleaders, a hospital, a school and one of those huge, durable jails which the English have built everywhere between Gibraltar and Hong Kong. The population was about four thousand,
including a couple of hundred Indians, a few score Chinese and seven Europeans. There were also two Eurasians named Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, the sons of an American Baptist missionary and a Roman Catholic missionary respectively. (Chapter 2)

The novel opens, shrewdly, with a chapter describing a typical morning of the wily U Po Kyin, the grossly fat sub-divisional magistrate of Kyauktada, introducing us to his loyal servant, the pock-marked thief Ba Taik, and his thin, long-suffering wife, Ma Kin. I say shrewdly because this opening chapter gives an immediate flavour of the heat, the climate, the native food (which U Po Kyin greedily stuffs himself with), and the cunning mind-set of a successful Burman. A potted biography of U Po Kyin gives a handy snapshot of how Burma had evolved under British rule since the war of 1885.

Having established the foreignness of the setting, the novel’s remaining 24 chapters almost all focus on the small European population of the town. Chapter two sets the tone by describing the town’s sad little European ‘Club’, where a group of very bored, hungover white men consort and bicker. Very quickly Orwell captures the hatefulness, boredom and spite of English colonials. Later on we are told that there are precisely eight white people in the whole town – collectively referred to as the sahiblog. They include:

Macgregor, worthy middle-aged chap, Deputy Commissioner and secretary of the Club. Always trying to see the best of things, tactfully avoiding arguments, a teller of long boring anecdotes. Macgregor has been instructed by his superiors to suggest that a ‘native’ join the Club, it’s the way things are going, most other clubs have one or two natives etc. This mild suggestion causes a storm of protest from the other whites.

Ellis, local manager of a timber company, is a spiteful racist cockney with a real deep loathing and hatred of the locals who he freely calls ‘niggers’, to the other white men’s discomfort. In every situation Ellis is guaranteed to pull all conversations down to the lowest common denominator and use every possible excuse to vent his hatred, not only of Burmans, but of women (‘There was nothing that gave him quite so keen a pleasure as dragging a woman’s name through mud.’ Chapter 7). In a historically interesting passage Ellis not only takes the mickey out of Flory’s blooming love for Elizabeth, but also gives a cynical opinion of the British Empire as a last-chance marriage bureau for women who have failed to find a husband back home – which is in fact an accurate description of Elizabeth’s plight.

Mr Lackersteen, the big, coarse-faced manager of a timber firm. He likes getting drunk and ‘having a good time’, which means touching up the local women, which is why his wife, Mrs Lackersteen, almost never lets him out of her sight. Later, he tries it on with his own niece, spurring her desperation to find a husband and move out of his house.

Westfield, the District Superintendent of Police, a man of clipped speech and melancholy voice, always making sad jokes. ‘A fresh-coloured blond youth of not more than twenty-five or six – very young for the post he held. With his heavy limbs and thick white eyelashes he reminded one of a cart-horse colt.’ (Chapter 2) Has a habit of predictably saying ‘Lead on, Macduff’ when anyone enters a room or commences some activity.

Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer. He ‘was lying in one of the long chairs reading the Field, and invisible except for two large-boned legs and thick downy forearms.’ (Chapter 2)

Dr Veraswami, an Indian and the only doctor in the town.

But the main character turns out to be Flory,

a man of about thirty-five, of middle height, not ill made. He had very black, stiff hair growing low on his head, and a cropped black moustache, and his skin, naturally sallow, was discoloured by the sun. Not having grown fat or bald he did not look older than his age, but his face was very haggard in spite of the sunburn, with lank cheeks and a sunken, withered look around the eyes… 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. And at all times, when he was not alone, there was a sidelongness about his movements, as he manoeuvred constantly to keep the birthmark out of sight. (Chapter 2)

We learn that Flory was bullied at school, keeps a black cocker spaniel named Flo, has a devoted servant – Ko S’la – who he grew up with, and keeps a beautiful mistress, the slender possessive Ma Hla May, who lets him have sex with her, passionlessly and dutifully, because she revels in the prestige and power of being the woman of a white man, especially the ability to boss about Flory’s long-suffering servants.

Flory has different opinions from the rest of the Europeans: he is supremely cynical about the worth of the empire, but more than that, he genuinely likes the native Burmans and is attracted to their culture and traditions. He has even learned their language when most Europeans barely bother to learn more than three words and get by on kicking servants. In this respect, he is quite obviously Orwell’s representative in the novel – up to a point.

Flory is good friends with Dr Veraswami – who the venomous Ellis nicknames ‘Very-Slimey’ – and on a number of occasions drops by his house for a chat in which the unctuous and anxious doctor always tries to please his troubled white friend. During one of these chats, Flory reluctantly promises to put his friend’s name forward for membership of the club reluctantly because he knows the arguments it will embroil him in.

For Flory’s problems is that he has to keep his perceptions of the beauty of the local scenery, the brightly-coloured birds and his love of the locals tightly buttoned up and kept rigorously secret, because it is so very contrary to the boorish, philistine codes of the pukka sahib. Flory is literally bursting with frustration to share his perceptions and experiences and the beauty he sees all around him with someone who will listen.

Then Mr and Mrs Lackersteen’s pretty young niece, 20-year-old Elizabeth, arrives in Kyauktada, and the story begins…

The plot

The plot has two strands:

1. The fat conspirator extraordinaire, taker of bribes and boundlessly ambitious U Po Kyin plots to discredit Dr Veraswami a) by writing anonymous letters to all the Europeans accusing him of innumerable scandals, and b) by fomenting a small rebellion in a distant village which he – U Po Kyin – will alert the authorities to and (arrange to) quell. In their gratitude the white men will invite him to join the Club, rather than the discredited doctor. As he explains to his slight, long-suffering wife, it will be the pinnacle of his career.

2. The hopeless love affair between shy, frustrated Flory and Elizabeth, young and freshly arrived from England. A chapter gives us her back story, namely that her father made a fortune during the Great War and so could afford to send her to a premium private school for young gels, where she acquired a taste for luxury and high living – but only for a brief year before Papa lost his fortune and she was sent to a succession of ever-dingier schools.

When poor Papa died, Mama was left with a pittance which she decided would go further if she moved to Paris where, after much self-indulgent dallying, she decides she will become an artist – in reality sinking into greater poverty surrounded by hangers-on spouting poetry and art and suchlike.

Shallow Elizabeth dreams only of being restored to her life among the rich and lovely and grows to loathe ‘highbrows’, their poverty and above all their futile pretensions. Elizabeth wants to marry a strong, noble, sunburned colonial god. When her Mama passes away, she receives a letter from her aunt in Burma and takes up the invitation to go and stay.

She arrives, is introduced to the bores and bigots and the Club. On virtually her first day she is menaced by a water buffalo, screams in terror, and Flory who happens to be passing comes to her rescue (knowing water buffalo are harmless). On the back of this he takes the role of showing her round, thinking he will interest her in local people and their culture.

But Elizabeth instinctively loathes the Burmans with their filth and revolting habits, and is unnerved to hear Flory spouting all the highbrow pretentious twaddle about ‘poetry’ and ‘beauty’ she associates with Parisian pretentiousness.

Flory, on the contrary, detests the traditional bric-a-brac of colonial life, the endless tedious conversations about tennis or dogs or guns or hunting. It is the colour and strange customs and ancient culture of Burma which attract him – and which Elizabeth loathes as ‘beastly’ and ‘high-brow’. It is a relationship based on mutual desperation and the central part of the book details with horrible stickiness their inevitable descent into an unhappy trap.

Flory and Elizabeth’s doomed romance

The middle half of the novel follows Flory’s feeble, dog-like attempts to show Elizabeth the local culture – taking her to a traditional pwe dance which she finds revolting, and into the home of a local notable, Li Yeik, which she finds filthy and where they serve revolting food and drink which makes her retch. (The description of their visit to the village festival and the performance of a pwe dancer are fascinating.) Orwell makes it perfectly, comically, tragically, clear they are at complete cross-purposes.

Then Flory has the idea of taking Elizabeth hunting, and this is the kind of thing Elizabeth expected: guns and beaters and manly men shooting things. Again, this is a riveting chapter full of brilliant descriptions of local birds and wildlife and climaxing in the gripping, cruel shooting of a leopard. (Hunting was much written about at this period: think of Hemingway’s classic account of a month on safari, The Green Hills of Africa, 1935). This is precisely the kind of thing the shallow brainless Elizabeth imagined when she thought of ‘India’ and its glamour. Over the body of the dead leopard she and Flory find they are holding hands; it is only a matter of time till he proposes to her.

That night at the Club Flory takes Elizabeth onto the veranda and is on the verge of proposing when her aunt interrupts by shouting from indoors. In fact, in a memorable development, before her aunt can appear on the veranda there is a minor earthquake which throws everyone off their feet, making all the women, native and European, scream. No-one is actually hurt but everyone assembles back inside the Club for a night of strong drink and yarning. The proposal moment is lost…

The arrival of Verrall

And lost forever because the next day a new arrival appears, the incredibly haughty, superior, supercilious Lieutenant the Honourable Verrall, son of a Lord, who has spent his career in India perfecting his polo playing. Verrall is a really superb creation, as effortlessly rude to the other Europeans as he is to the natives. He makes his mark immediately at the Club by giving the native butler a sound kicking and then refusing to apologise or even acknowledge the other members when they remonstrate with him.

Predictably, Elizabeth falls for this stiff, handsome, uncaring philistine – I pictured him as Edward Fox in Day of the Jackal – and drops Flory like a brick. It doesn’t help that her aunt helpfully lets slip the night after the successful hunt, that Flory keeps a native mistress. (In fact we know that Flory has painfully dumped Ma Hla May a week or so earlier. She made a big scene and returns to blackmail money out of him; in his eyes this makes someone telling Elizabeth about Ma Hla horribly unfair, though we readers may think the general point remains true – he is the kind of man who took a native mistress.)

Elizabeth cuts Flory dead and the devastated lonely man returns to his timber plantation up country where he throws himself into his work (the description of which is itself interesting). In fact, after barely two weeks he is so obsessed with her that he goes back down to Kyauktada, and has the bright idea of getting the leopard skin stylishly cured and giving it to her.

Predictably, this all goes wrong. The native charged with curing the leopard skin makes a dreadful hash of it, producing a scorched stinking skin which Flory foolishly persists on giving to Elizabeth – who naturally recoils. Their meeting, at Mrs Lackersteen’s house, is memorably embarrassing and Flory finds himself limited to the shallowest polite conversation before being more or less turfed out. Mrs Lackersteen orders the servants to burn the stinky leopard skin.

But meanwhile Elizabeth’s cause with Verrall is not prospering. We know this because the author has told us that Verrall has a record of dallying with attractive young gels and then dropping them. Hence they go riding together and – it is strongly hinted – might be doing the deed of darkness deep in the jungle. But, in his clipped, overbred way, Verrall drops never a hint of matrimony. Though he’s a cad and a bounder etc (it is emphasised that he leaves not only a string of broken hearts but also massive debts to all the local traders wherever he sojourns), in some ways Verall is the most attractive character in the book: he gets his way without whining or complaining.

The pretend rebellion

U Po Kyin’s toy rebellion goes ahead in some remote village; it turns out to involve just eight villagers. Maxwell, the acting Divisional Forest Officer, is involved in ‘suppressing’ it and, when one of the ‘rebels’ runs away, unwisely shoots, hitting him in the stomach and killing him. Nonetheless, U Po Kyin rather ludicrously claims the benefit and prestige of having tipped off the authorities.

Flory returns from his station to the Club for the vote at start of June about whether to admit a native. Ellis is ranting against ‘niggers’. Flory steels himself to keep his promise to his friend Veraswami and nominates him as a member. The others all start attacking him, Ellis with virulent racist hatred, when they are interrupted by natives mooring a boat by the river bank (the Club is right by the wide River Irrawaddy) and bringing up a body wrapped in local cloth. It is Maxwell. He has been hacked to pieces by the brothers of the native he shot dead a week earlier. For the first time an air of real tragedy descends on what till now had been at times a fairly brittle social satire.

Next day Ellis is walking from his bungalow to the club and Orwell gives us a running stream of his thoughts which are phenomenally angry and racist. God he wishes there’d be some trouble, a real riot, because then they could call the Military Police out and massacre the brutes; kill scores, hundreds of ’em. That would teach ’em a lesson – and so on. (As a matter of historical curiosity, in an earlier conversation at the Club, Ellis is seen defending Colonel Dyer who, notoriously, ordered the killing of some 400 protesters in the Amritsar massacre of 13 April 1919. It is not so much the reference as the context Orwell puts around it which, fascinatingly, helps you see that there would have been many Brits who whole-heartedly supported Dyer.)

An inoffensive Burman carrying bags passes him, prompting a psychopathic wish to attack and hurt him. Next he sees five schoolboys coming towards him, smiling and when they reply in broken English to his salvo of abuse, Ellis snaps and hits one of them in the face with his stick. That one goes down and the other four attack Ellis but he is surprisingly strong, fights them off and makes it to the club veranda. (In a a brief exasperated sentence Orwell adds that, later on, a local doctor administers some foul concoction to the boy’s eyes, thus successfully him.)

The real riot

That night a huge crowd of Burmans, several thousand strong, surrounds the Club calling for Ellis to be sent out. Macgregor staunchly goes out to try and restore calm but is subject to a bombardment of stones and the crowd turn really ugly. The whites (and their terrified servants) barricade the Club, locking all windows and doors, and there’s the real possibility the mob will storm the building and it would only take blood to be drawn on either side to spark a massacre. All the whites panic, Ellis abusing everyone in sight, Mr Lackersteen drinking himself unconscious, the memsahibs wailing – all want to know where the damn military police are.

For Verrall had arrived with a detachment of a hundred and fifty military police – but he and Westfield have been gone several days on a mission to track down Maxwell’s killers. Flory has bright idea of creeping out the back of the Club and swimming down the river to alert the police. He does so, easily evading the handful of Burmans in the back garden, and within minutes is emerging a few hundred yards downstream to realise the police haven’t come to help because they themselves are engulfed in the mob, having waded into them with only sticks.

Flory manages to struggle through to the (Indian) NCO of the police and instructs him to a) struggle free of the mob b) rally his men c) issue firearms d) fire over the heads of the crowd. As soon as they let fly the first volley, the entire crowd falls to the ground. Another and they are up and running away.

I found this scene extremely convincing, and a reminder that Orwell himself personally was in charge of this kind of force and had had to handle tricky situations. Quick assessment, quick decision, quick action save the day. The police advance on the Club whence the last few Burmans are fleeing and liberate the whites. Flory is very much the hero of the hour – though there is an element of comedy in that out of nowhere U Po Kyin has attached himself to the police and is trying to claim half the credit for quelling the riot.

Flory enjoys being hero for an hour. Next day finds he is respected by everyone, Elizabeth is looking at him with new respect, Ellis has his come-uppance as during the siege he swore and insulted all the other whites, specially the unforgiving Mrs Lackersteen.

In a simple but poetic (symbolic) touch, as the last of the rioters had dispersed the previous night, the long-awaited monsoon had broken and it began to rain tumultuously. That evening Flory and Elizabeth meet at the Club and, amid the din of the rain, she seems favourable to him again, but breaks away to go inside. Flory had arranged to return to his lumber camp and sets off.

Verrall decamps

Elizabeth had been hesitant because she is genuinely torn between dashing Verrall and now-heroic Flory. Trouble is Verrall hasn’t been seen at the club for several days and, typically, hasn’t contacted her. The days pass as Mrs Lackersteen and Elizabeth wait timidly at the Club for the reappearance of Verrall. Imagine their horror when, on the third morning, out of the torrential rain appears a bumptious youth in uniform who announces that he is the new head of the military police. ‘Yes, that other chappy, Verall, he’s just leaving by train now.’ The women run out into a rickshaw and get it driven through the pelting rain to the station – only to watch the train puffing out of sight. Such a cad is young Verall that he not only packed and left, loading up his horses and saddles, in secret, but actually ordered the stationmaster to send the train off ten minutes earlier, the better to avoid a sticky scene.

The women digest this blow to their ambitions (the whole plot thread of Mrs Lackersteen encouraging her niece to clamp on to the nearest available man has a very calculating, feminine Jane Austen feel to it). It is Saturday. That evening the chaplain arrives for his six-weekly visit. Next morning the entire white community will (reluctantly) go to church, and Flory will come back into town for the event. Both the women have, without saying anything explicit, completely reversed their view about him, now that Flory has reverted to being the only eligible bachelor in town. The lovely Mr Flory!

Tragic denouement

Next morning the whites assemble for the six-weekly visit of the chaplain and Sunday prayers. Elizabeth looks radiant and when Flory asks whether Verrall has left, she confirms it, and looks doe-ishly into his eyes. It is now a sure thing that they will get married. Flory’s mind drifts off during the service into fantasies of living in a beautiful bungalow, decorated by Elizabeth’s fair hand, with flowers everywhere and a piano – a piano! – when… he is awoken by a rumpus at the door.

It is Ma Hla May, his ex-mistress, looking more raddled and ragged than ever, screeching at the top of her voice, accusing Flory of having used her and kicked her out, demanding he pay her the money he (foolishly) promised her and then – horror of horrors – she begins to tear at her clothes with a view to stripping naked, the ultimate in self-abasement and shaming behaviour.

Since she’s yelling in Burmese none of the whites understand a word but they definitely get the gist. Flory turns white then a cringing yellow. Elizabeth looks at him and for the first time sees how old and raddled and worn and pathetic he is – and for the first time really sees how ugly his birthmark makes him. And Flory sees all this pass through her eyes. Ma Hla May is man-handled out the church by two Eurasians, but the damage is done.

The service staggers to a conclusion and Flory leaves immediately, his ears burning, his mind reeling. Looking back he sees all the others making for the Club, leaving Elizabeth slightly apart. He quickly runs over to her and begs forgiveness, begs her pardon, asks if she will consider him again, in a year, in five years, in ten years. He has previously pleaded with her (on the night he gave her the wretched botched leopard skin) but now he reaches new depths of humiliating abasement. But Elizabeth coldly insists there was never any understanding between them, says he revolts her, and hurries off.

Flory staggers to his bungalow in a daze, rejects the breakfast laid on by his faithful servant, drags his dog Flo into his bedroom, locks the door, then shoots first the dog, then himself through the heart. The servants panic at the shots and call Dr Veraswami, who confirms that his best friend is dead. He writes a death certificate saying it must have been ‘accidental death’, cleaning his revolver etc, a last service to his friend.

So that is that. Throughout its course I wasn’t sure how it would end, but it turns out to be quite a dark tragedy – rather against the grain of some of the social satire and the lush descriptions.

Tying up loose ends

The short last chapter makes a comprehensive round up of all the remaining characters, tying up all the loose ends. (In this respect – a sad final chapter after the agonised main character has melodramatically committed suicide in a sweaty colonial setting – reminds me very much of Graham Greene’s The Heart of The Matter where we are witness through two hundred long pages to Scobie’s agonised pangs of conscience leading up to his suicide – and then in the sad postscript discover that everyone knew about his silly infidelity anyway, and didn’t much care.)

Same here. Despite Dr Veraswami’s efforts to cover up his friend’s suicide, Flory quickly just becomes another story of the sad so-and-so who killed himself because of girl trouble. The good doctor sinks very low now in social esteem, his one solid white friend being dead and U Po Kyin’s continued campaign of anonymous letters attacking him take their effect. Orwell details the precise extent of his degradation as he is demoted and switched to a stinking third-rate hospital in sweltering Rangoon.

U Po Kyin’s plans succeed. He is indeed elected a member of the Club where he turns out to be agreeable company, having the tact to only rarely attend and when he does, turns out to be an excellent bridge player. Orwell pushes the satirical point home by having U Po Kyin promoted by the authorities for his role in repressing the ‘rebellion’ and the riot, and then invited to a durbar, where the Great British Empire in all its pomp includes him in a list of loyal servants given royal awards. However, he dies of a stroke a few days later, leaving his poor widow agonising about his probable tribulations in the Burmese afterlife.

And Elizabeth is at her wit’s end – Verrall abandoned her, Flory turned out to be a hopeless beast before squalidly killing himself – and all the time the wretched Mr Lackersteen continues his campaign of pinching, fondling and trying to kiss her whenever Mrs Lackersteen’s back is turned. If she returns to England she will be penniless, oh what to do? At which point kindly Mr Macgregor proposes to her and is accepted. After marriage, he becomes even more human and contented, while she ascends to her rightful position, a fiery preserver of white privilege, a despiser of native culture, keeping a beady eye on the Civil Service List to see who is up and who is down, and a terror to her servants.

Thus the British Empire in all its glory.


Anti-imperial

Is the book by any chance anti-imperial? Just a bit.

He had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code. In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you
sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they ARE
greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. (Chapter 5)

But it’s not just where the subject is overtly discussed – which is only in half a dozen or so places – quite obviously the entire book, insofar as it a downbeat description of colonial life in a small station in British India, is implicitly critical.

We can assume a lot of the characterisation and the psychology is fairly accurate, in fact Orwell was so worried about the risk of libel – having based the town and some of the characters on a real place and real people – that he had it published in America first to test out the waters, and it was initially turned down by his British publisher. In the event, people who’d known him in Burma felt he’d let the side down but nothing worse happened.

The book critiques the Empire in at least three ways:

  1. overt analysis/criticism as quoted above, where Flory, for example, explicitly states the Empire is nothing but institutionalised robbery
  2. by portraying through the opinions and actions of the white characters a variety of types or shades of racist thought and action
  3. but above all, structurally – by which I mean that the entire book shows how absolutely everyone in it, all the whites and all the natives, are caught in the imperial power structure, are defined as either rulers or ruled, and how this determines almost every aspect of their lives, from the grandest schemes to the tiniest details of contempt and humiliation

The arguments for and against Britain’s presence in India are presented in a set-piece debate between the cynic Flory and the devoted loyalist Dr Veraswami in chapter 3.

‘Seditious?’ Flory said. ‘I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.’

The novel as a whole is a powerful indictment not because of the explicitly anti-imperial reflections of poor unhappy Flory, but because of the penetrating details of imperial life which it depicts, often as asides.

For example, it is in the briefest of references that we learn that the eight or so villagers U Po Kyin paid to stage a fake ‘rebellion’ in fact end up brutally sentenced, to fifteen years in prison, floggings and so on. With a handful of exceptions – servants and mistresses – the Burmese are just a background throng against which the adventures of ‘real’ i.e. white people take place. The blinding of the Burmese boy, the ruination of Ma Hla May, the sentences meted out to the ‘rebels’ – all are mentioned but deliberately briefly to implicate the readers themselves in the imperialist ideology of only taking white people seriously.

We, in our times, are so continually exposed to unanswerable post-colonial propaganda about how awful and racist the British Empire was, that it is a relief – and much more powerful – to see it described in detail by someone who was there, and so to realise that it was made out of people like you and me. Some are bastards. Some are decent. Some try to improve things. Some ruthlessly exploit their superior position.

All are caught in the ideology and social structure of their time which requires them to go along with the more or less overt exploitation and humiliation of the native peoples they ‘rule’, all living with a greater or lesser degree of bad conscience, all internalising it into guilt feelings like Flory (and as Orwell himself did, as he confesses in The Road To Wigan Pier), or externalising it into vicious bigotry and thoughtless violence, like Ellis and Verrall.

This fictional depiction of empire makes a much more compelling anti-imperial case than many of the anti-imperial histories I’ve read recently, because it is subtler, and shows how the insidious consequences of imperial rule poisoned all social relations, and the characters of all those involved.

Tourist info

Orwell’s local knowledge treads a fine line between being genuine insider tips and occasionally becoming a bit too explanatory – the tone sometimes reminds you of the ‘old India hand’, keen to explain this that or the other about colonial life to the new boy.

  • Every European in India is ex officio, or rather ex colore, a good fellow, until he has done something quite outrageous. It is an honorary rank. (Chapter 2)
  • It is a disagreeable thing when one’s close friend is not one’s social equal; but it is a thing native to the very air of India. (Chapter 3)

This keenness to explain extends to numerous details of Burma life:

  •  All European food in Burma is more or less disgusting – the bread is spongy stuff leavened with palm-toddy and tasting like a penny bun gone wrong, the butter comes out of a tin, and so does the milk, unless it is the grey watery catlap of the dudh-wallah. (Chapter 4)
  • There is no Burmese word for to kiss. (Chapter 4)
  • In India it is in some way evil to spend a day without being once in a muck-sweat. It gives one a deeper sense of sin than a thousand lecheries. In the dark evening, after a quite idle day, one’s ennui reaches a pitch that is frantic, suicidal. Work, prayer, books, drinking, talking – they are all powerless against it; it can only be sweated out through the pores of the skin. (Chapter 4)
  • The meal was pretentious and filthy. The clever ‘Mug’ cooks, descendants of servants trained
    by Frenchmen in India centuries ago, can do anything with food except make it eatable. (Chapter 4)

Generalisations

As you can see, Orwell likes generalisations. It’s a common habit of his factual prose as well, the paragraph which leads towards a sententious moral. Once I’d noticed this sententiousness it put me in mind of his contemporary, Graham Greene (born in 1904 to Orwell’s 1903). Orwell is not as completely addicted to spouting quotable mottos as Greene, but it reminds you that they both come from the same public school, administrative class, which was taught above all other things, to sound authoritative.

In fact I think their sententiousness is part of the appeal of both writers, though admittedly to rather different audiences: they both sound so wise and experienced, ultimately because they are capable of generating such authoritative sounding generalisations.

But as with Greene, not all of these, on a moment’s reflection, are totally persuasive.

  • No Englishman ever feels himself in real danger from an Oriental. (Chapter 6)
  • When one does get any credit in this life, it is usually for something that one has not done. (Chapter 6)
  • Meanwhile, Flory’s proposal went no further. One cannot propose marriage immediately after an earthquake. (Chapter 15)
  • As it was, everyone except the two women detested him [the Honourable Verrall]  from the start. It is always so with titled people, they are either adored or hated. If they accept one it is charming simplicity, if they ignore one it is loathsome snobbishness; there are no half-measures. (Chapter 18)
  • Like all sons of rich families, he [Verrall] thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits. (Chapter 18)
  • She was italicizing every other word, with that deadly, glittering brightness that a woman puts on when she is dodging a moral obligation. (Chapter 19)

Similarly, Orwell assumes the reader is familiar with experiences, feelings and sensations which, in fact, we often aren’t.

  • He had called out eagerly, appealingly, as one does when one is conscious of looking a fool. (Chapter 16)
  • Mrs Lackersteen left him standing up in the drawing-room, feeling lumpish and abnormally large as one does at such times. (Chapter 19)
  • Ko S’la had the art, so necessary in a bachelor’s servant, of undressing his master without waking him. (Chapter 19)
  • Envy is a horrible thing. It is unlike all other kinds of suffering in that there is no disguising it, no elevating it into tragedy. It is more than merely painful, it is disgusting. (Chapter 20)
  • There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways. (Chapter 23)

These kinds of generalisations are coercive: they push you into accepting the values of the fiction, and they have a secondary role in nudging you to accept the higher wisdom of the author. Whatever their merit as statements about human nature, their immediate function is to suck you into the fiction and bolster the author’s authority. Thus, to some extent, all those fans of either Greene or Orwell who worship them as ‘great writers’, have to some extent been suckered by their rhetorical devices.

Etc etc

Orwell has an odd tic, which is his use of ‘etc etc’ when impatiently summarising a point of view he thinks is tiresomely obvious.

In his journalism he often caricatures opposing points of view by quoting a stream of their most obvious arguments before, rather insultingly tailing off with ‘etc etc’, as if everyone knows and is bored of them. A kind of ‘argument from boredom’.

But it is unusual to find a novelist doing this with his characters in a fiction. Thus:

  • Ellis the bigot: ”My God, I should have thought in a case like this, when it’s a question of keeping those black, stinking swine out of the only place where we can enjoy ourselves, you’d have the decency to back me up. Even if that pot-bellied greasy little sod of a nigger doctor IS your best pal. I don’t care if you choose to pal up with the scum of the bazaar. If it pleases you to go to
    Veraswami’s house and drink whisky with all his nigger pals, that’s your look-out. Do what you like outside the Club. But, by God, it’s a different matter when you talk of bringing niggers in here. I suppose you’d like little Veraswami for a Club member, eh? Chipping into our conversation and pawing everyone with his sweaty hands and breathing his filthy garlic breath in our faces. By god, he’d go out with my boot behind him if ever I saw his black snout inside that door. Greasy, pot-bellied little –!’ etc.
  • Of the note Ellis the bigot composes: ”In view of the cowardly insult recently offered to our Deputy
    commissioner, we the undersigned wish to give it as our opinion that this is the worst possible moment to consider the election of niggers to this Club,’ etc, etc.
  • Describing Elizabeth’s mother’s prattle in Paris: ‘How wonderful you are, dear. So practical! I can’t think whom you inherit it from. Now with me, Art is simply EVERYTHING. I seem to feel it like a great sea surging up inside me. It swamps everything mean and petty out of existence. Yesterday I ate my lunch off Nash’s Magazine to save wasting time washing plates. Such a good idea! When you want a clean plate you just tear off a sheet,’ etc., etc., etc.
  • The letter Mrs Lackersteen writes to Elizabeth from Burma: ‘Of course, this is a very small station and we are in the jungle a great deal of the time. I’m afraid you will find it dreadfully dull after the DELIGHTS of Paris. But really in some ways these small stations have their advantages for a young girl. She finds herself quite a QUEEN in the local society. The unmarried men are so lonely that they appreciate a girl’s society in a quite wonderful way, etc., etc.’
  • Francis the Eurasian’s interminable recounting of his life story: ”Of my father, sir, I remember little, but he was very choleric man and many whackings with big bamboo stick all knobs on both for self, little half-brother and two mothers. Also how on occasion of bishop’s visit little half-brother and I dress in longyis and sent among the Burmese children to preserve incognito. My father never rose to be bishop, sir. Four converts only in twenty-eight years, and also too great fondness for Chinese rice-spirit very fiery noised abroad and spoil sales of my father’s booklet entitled The Scourge of Alcohol, published with the Rangoon Baptist Press, one rupee eight annas. My little half-brother die one hot weather, always coughing, coughing,’ etc., etc.
  • The native butler at the Club excitably recounting earthquake stories: ”Oh, sir, but 1906 was bigger! Very bad shock, sir! And big heathen idol in the temple fall down on top of the thathanabaing, that is Buddhist bishop, madam, which the Burmese say mean bad omen for failure of paddy crop and foot-and-mouth disease. Also in 1887 my first earthquake I remember, when I was a little chokra, and Major Maclagan sahib was lying under the table and promising he sign the teetotal pledge tomorrow morning. He not know it was an earthquake. Also two cows was killed by falling roofs,’ etc, etc.
  • Elizabeth avoiding saying anything meaningful to Flory: She helped him to pick up the table, chattering all the while as gaily and easily as though nothing had happened: ‘You have been away a long time, Mr Flory! You’re quite a stranger! We’ve so missed you at the Club!’ etc., etc.
  • A sample gravestone from the white cemetery: ‘Sacred to the memory of John Henry Spagnall, late of the Indian Imperial Police, who was cut down by cholera while in the unremitting exercise of’ etc., etc., etc.
  • The official and completely untrue account of an affray Ellis is in:  ‘The boys had attacked Mr Ellis without any provocation whatever, he had defended himself,’ etc., etc. (Chapter 22)

It is a kind of journalistic short hand, which is unusual in a novel. It also, perhaps, has a slightly coercive effect, as in ‘You know all this stuff already, why do I need to blether on?’

Joy of descriptions

I was taught at school and university to consider novels as tracts of moral philosophy, to assess the rightness or wrongness of characters’ actions, thoughts etc, and to work up long analyses of the various moral ‘issues’ raised. We were also taught to hunt for the symbolism to be found in many novels, the use of imagery to reinforce ideas or themes. Later I was attracted by ideas around structuralism and narratology, analysing texts out into their component parts, like taking a machine to pieces to see how it works.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve taken more to the purely sensual qualities of books: drawn to the combination of intelligent insight and style (which you get in good history books), or to the sheer pleasure and sensuality of the descriptions, to be found in fiction. To my great surprise this book, by the generally puritanical Orwell, turns out to be awash with sumptuous descriptions. It is a surprisingly sensuous and physical read.

The morning sunlight slanted up the maidan and struck, yellow as goldleaf, against the white face of the bungalow. Four black-purple crows swooped down and perched on the veranda rail, waiting
their chance to dart in and steal the bread and butter that Ko S’la had set down beside Flory’s bed.

They walked on and came to the jail, a vast square block, two hundred yards each way, with shiny concrete walls twenty feet high. A peacock, pet of the jail, was mincing pigeon-toed along the parapet. Six convicts came by, head down, dragging two heavy handcarts piled with earth, under the guard of Indian warders. They were long-sentence men, with heavy limbs, dressed in uniforms of coarse white cloth with small dunces’ caps perched on their shaven crowns. Their faces were greyish, cowed and curiously flattened. Their leg-irons jingled with a clear ring. A woman came past carrying a basket of fish on her head. Two crows were circling round it and making darts at it, and the woman was flapping one hand negligently to keep them away…

The bazaar was an enclosure like a very large cattle pen, with low stalls, mostly palm-thatched, round its edge. In the enclosure, a mob of people seethed, shouting and jostling; the confusion of their multi-coloured clothes was like a cascade of hundreds-and-thousands poured out of a jar. Beyond the bazaar one could see the huge, miry river. Tree branches and long streaks of scum raced down it at seven miles an hour. By the bank a fleet of sampans, with sharp beak-like bows on which eyes were painted, rocked at their mooring-poles…

‘Look!’ Flory was pointing with his stick to a stall, and saying something, but it was drowned by the yells of two women who were shaking their fists at each other over a basket of pineapples. Elizabeth had recoiled from the stench and din, but he did not notice it, and led her deeper into the crowd, pointing to this stall and that. The merchandise was foreign-looking, queer and poor. There were vast pomelos hanging on strings like green moons, red bananas, baskets of heliotrope-coloured prawns the size of lobsters, brittle dried fish tied in bundles, crimson chilis, ducks split open and cured like hams, green coconuts, the larvae of the rhinoceros beetle, sections of sugar-cane, dahs, lacquered sandals, check silk longyis, aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills, glazed earthenware jars four feet high, Chinese sweetmeats made of garlic and sugar, green and white cigars, purple prinjals, persimmon-seed necklaces, chickens cheeping in wicker cages, brass
Buddhas, heart-shaped betel leaves, bottles of Kruschen salts, switches of false hair, red clay cooking-pots, steel shoes for bullocks, papier-mache marionettes, strips of alligator hide with
magical properties. Elizabeth’s head was beginning to swim. At the other end of the bazaar the sun gleamed through a priest’s umbrella, blood-red, as though through the ear of a giant. In front of a stall four Dravidian women were pounding turmeric with heavy stakes in a large wooden mortar. The hot-scented yellow powder flew up and tickled Elizabeth’s nostrils, making her sneeze.

There are lots of passages like this, making the book a surprisingly voluptuous description of the ‘mysterious East’.

Beauty

In particular, I was struck by how beautiful Orwell finds things, particularly the flora and fauna. Again and again he describes birds and flowers with an accuracy and delight which is infectious. He repeatedly uses the word ‘beautiful’.

There was a stirring high up in the peepul tree, and a bubbling noise like pots boiling. A flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries. Flory gazed up into the great green dome of the tree, trying to distinguish the birds; they were invisible, they matched the leaves so perfectly, and yet the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it. Flo rested herself against the roots and growled up at the invisible creatures. Then a single green pigeon fluttered down and perched on a lower branch. It did not know that it was being watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of iridescent colours.

The canoes, each hollowed out of a single tree-trunk, glided swiftly, hardly rippling the dark brown water. Water hyacinth with profuse spongy foliage and blue flowers had choked the stream so that the channel was only a winding ribbon four feet wide. The light filtered, greenish, through interlacing boughs. Sometimes one could hear parrots scream overhead, but no wild creatures showed themselves, except once a snake that swam hurriedly away and disappeared among the water hyacinth.

The pigeon rocked itself backwards and forwards on the bough, swelling out its breast feathers and laying its coralline beak upon them. A pang went through Flory. Alone, alone, the bitterness of being alone! So often like this, in lonely places in the forest, he would come upon something – bird, flower, tree – beautiful beyond all words, if there had been a soul with whom to share it. (Chapter 4)

Flory went outside and loitered down the compound, poking weeds into the ground with his stick. At that hour there were beautiful faint colours in everything – tender green of leaves, pinkish brown
of earth and tree-trunks–like aquarelle washes that would vanish in the later glare. Down on the maidan flights of small, low-flying brown doves chased one another to and fro, and bee-eaters, emerald-green, curvetted like slow swallows. (Chapter 6)

Ten yards away a little cock the size of a bantam, was pecking vigorously at the ground. He was beautiful, with his long silky neck-feathers, bunched comb and arching, laurel-green tail. There
were six hens with him, smaller brown birds, with diamond-shaped feathers like snake-scales on their backs.

Everyone squatted down round the leopard and gazed at him. They stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s, and squeezed his broad pugs to bring out the claws, and pulled back his black lips to examine the fangs.

It was the night of the full moon. Flaring like a white-hot coin, so brilliant that it hurt one’s eyes, the moon swam rapidly upwards in a sky of smoky blue, across which drifted a few wisps of yellowish cloud. The stars were all invisible. The croton bushes, by day hideous things like jaundiced laurels, were changed by the moon into jagged black and white designs like fantastic wood-cuts. By the compound fence two Dravidian coolies were walking down the road, transfigured, their white rags gleaming. (Chapter 15)

He noticed that Verrall’s pony was a beautiful Arab, a mare, with proud neck and arching, plume-like tail; a lovely milk-white thing, worth several thousands of rupees. (Chapter 16)

Even people can be beautiful.

Unblinking, rather like a great porcelain idol, U Po Kyin gazed out into the fierce sunlight. He was a man of fifty, so fat that for years he had not risen from his chair without help, and yet shapely and even beautiful in his grossness; for the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling. (Chapter 1)

Ma Hla May was a woman of twenty-two or -three, and perhaps five feet tall. She was dressed in a longyi of pale blue embroidered Chinese satin, and a starched white muslin ingyi on which several
gold lockets hung. Her hair was coiled in a tight black cylinder like ebony, and decorated with jasmine flowers. Her tiny, straight, slender body was a contourless as a bas-relief carved upon a tree. She was like a doll, with her oval, still face the colour of new copper, and her narrow eyes; an outlandish doll and yet a grotesquely beautiful one. A scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil came into the room with her. (Chapter 4)

There is also a kind of beauty in the precision and careful vocabulary with which Orwell describes ugliness – poverty, slums, gravediggers and so on – I could give many examples – but they tend to be outweighed by the lush. It is these richly exotic and full and positive descriptions which I’ll remember.


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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