Burmese Days- Early Dystopia, Death Eaters and Alienation

When reading Stoler’s article, I was immediately struck by her chapter on the European anxiety that the “wealth and cultivation” of “persons of mixed descent” were “rivaling those of many ‘full blooded’ Europeans” (Stoler 528). This view of inequality reminded me instantly of the Harry Potter books- after all, what is Voldemort undertaking but some neo-Nazi, anti-racial, imperialist quest to highlight the inferior nature of those that are not “pure blood”? We see this in Stoler’s mention of the public schools in the Indies, where eduation is biased in itself, and “only designed for a lower-class… mixed blood Europeans” (Stoler 530). Elizabeth’s character in Burmese Days offers us an appalling glance at people who are portrayed as “so horrible [she] can hardly look at them”. The “absolute savages” (129) that the Burmese represent to the Europeans is of course, another example of “colonial difference”- they absolutely do not deserve the same treatment/”priviledges” as their white superiors do simply because they are racially inferior. As Stoler highlights, being of “mixed race” is almost worse, because they are confusing the boundaries placed between the whites and the natives, a kind of “trespassing on terriory”.

In this vein, Orwell’s Burmese Days really contextualised for me (as Wen Ting mentioned in her presentation), his early influences of Dystopia (1984, Animal Farm)- imperialism, a way to supposedly bring “civilisation” and equality, simply does not work. I found the text depressing and disturbing, because none of the characters were redeeming or sympathetic in any way. Ellis is a perfect example of white fanaticism, a classic ‘Death Eater’ type, and we immediately see him in that inflexible stereotypical light, but the other characters do not compensate for this character. The idea that a group of whiskey-drinking, “smutty rhyme”-reciting (Orwell 27), cigar-smoking, and mistress-keeping British men gone to seed is supposed to be the “Kipling”-spirited saviors of Burma is appalling (even Kipling wanted SOME good to come of imperialism). There is no comfort in Orwell’s picture of “the solitude, the melancholy” of Burma that Elizabeth sees as “so futile, this meandering talk” (180).

The space of Burma becomes nothing but a space for the ‘adventures (or lack thereof) of the British’. Much like Achebe’s quibble with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Burma becomes the place where English girls can go to find husbands in men who are made lonely and desperate by alienation; we can see this in Flory’s MUCH MISPLACED love for Elizabeth. It also becomes the space where men can find booze, opium, servants and sex. The way that the text ends suggests that there will be no solution or change in this situation- Elizabeth (arguably the most unattractive character in the text) takes her natural role as a “burra memsahib” (287), reluctant imperialist men like Flory are silenced, the doctor who has internalized racial prejudice suffers the consequences, and Ma Hla May stays a paid woman (just paid by somebody else).

2 thoughts on “Burmese Days- Early Dystopia, Death Eaters and Alienation

  1. This is an interesting comment: “In this vein, Orwell’s Burmese Days really contextualised for me (as Wen Ting mentioned in her presentation), his early influences of Dystopia (1984, Animal Farm)- imperialism, a way to supposedly bring “civilisation” and equality, simply does not work”
    How does Orwell for you translate imperialism into a kind of dystopia?

    • Hi Dr. Koh.. Well I just meant that imperialism and dystopia share a connection that I never really thought about before. If we think about imperialism as a way in which “civilisation” (and therefore social equality) is supposed to be brought to native lands, then it shares a link with the ideas of Marx, except equality is brought about by the equality of finances.

      One thing these two have in common is the notion of a higher “control” – for imperialism, it is the existence of the white power which dictates the way in which native lands (and its people) are exploited (perhaps it is no coincidence that money is involved again). In communism, the concept of the “Big Brother” (1984) is State Control. In both cases, a “higher control” is supposed to have the ability (and more importantly the authority) to bring “equality” in various ways to people who are less “informed”/educated/priviledged.

      Furthermore, the use of ideology is one way in which power is created, gained and perpetuated. In the critical readings for this module, power has been said to be achieved through various discourses of race, sexuality, gender and “civilisation”, all to create the notion of “difference” (“colonial difference”) that makes exploitation justified, needed even. This directly reinforces the ideas used in Animal Farm, where the internalization of the notion that “Four legs good, Two legs better” leads to the ‘willing slavery’ of the subjected animals.

      Thus, Orwell’s texts in this module for me was very useful in helping me see how his Dystopian texts have been shaped by his disillusionment of Imperialism.