Redeeming the colonial wife

Originally, when I first read Burmese Days, I found Elizabeth quite an appalling character. The way Orwell portrays her as flitting from man to man in search of a husband, regardless of how she feels towards the person in question romantically, seems to illustrate a very negative image of a materialistic woman who uses men to advance her own standing. After reading Stoler’s article on “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” however, I find myself wanting to redeem Elizabeth.


As Stoler points out, European women were “to be almost as closely policed as colonized men” (60), and they were confined to colonial spaces as “custodians of family welfare and respectability and dedicated and willing subordinates to and supporters of men” (61). This can be seen in Elizabeth’s story. As a professional woman, a teacher in Paris, she is subjected to poverty and sexual harassment from her employer. As a single woman entering the colonies, she is immediately subjected to pressures to get married. For example, her uncle and aunt, in their first letter to her, immediately pointed out the many unmarried men present in the colonies who would appreciate her company. Furthermore, as a single woman in the colonies she is subjected to sexual harassment by her uncle, and her only way of escaping that is to marry someone else. In short, reflecting Stoler’s argument, Elizabeth is driven towards marriage (being a wife and mother) by the social pressures on her (her aunt and uncle’s pressuring of her to find a husband), and the impossibility of a single woman gaining any wealth or respect on her own (as the multiple attacks on her modesty and her poverty in Paris illustrates). Thus, in that sense, we might be able to claim that Elizabeth turns out to be the materialistic person that she is because the confinement of women to the colonial spaces of motherhood and marriage drives her to it.