Notes on Burmese Days (Week 9, Part I)


In their presentation, Jingxuan and Frederick focused on the discourses of Power in Orwell’s Burmese Days and how these discourses reinforce each other insecuring the dominant ideology of the Imperial hegemony.

1. Jingxuan, in the first half of the presentation, explored the theoretical framework of power in Burmese Days by borrowing Michel Foucault’s definition, asserting that for our reading of the text, it is not useful to see power as a universal and all-encompassing force, but rather should be seen as something that only exists when put into action;  i.e.: when “certain actions modify others” (The Subject and Power).

Power, hence, becomes a dialectic in the text that exists in a kind of liminal space between the Coloniser and the colonised. Colonial power needs to beactivated by the colonised through actions that modify (hence reinforce) the actions of the Colonist (see Examples 1-3).

2. As power is understood as being born out of symbiosis, power loses agency when it is not constantly volleying back and forth within the hierarchy. Hence it can be activated and de-activated, and cannot by definition remain static (see Examples 4-5).

3. Foucault goes on to state that power comes from the prescribing of an identity on the individual who then has to behave within the boundaries of this identity in order to be accepted in society. If this identity is rejected by the individual, the power illicited from the reverence of others is lost.

4. Distribution of power in Burmese Days is not strictly based on racial discrimination as power is a by-product of a symbiotic process. Hence, individuals can gain power by adhering to the code of conduct established by the hegemony (see Example 6)

5. Frederick decided to narrow down the group’s discussion of power to the role of women in the text, using Urmila Seshagiri’s “Misogyny and Anti-Imperialism in George Orwell’s Burmese Days”.  He looks at the power that comes from sexual aggression in the form of the literal rape carried out by U PoKyin and the various sexual encounters throughout the text.

6. Sexual power is also seen as symbiotically formed, established by the aggression of the male and the bartering of sex by women (see Example 7).

7. Ma Hla May is the embodiment of Burma, just as Elizabeth Lackersteen is the embodiment of England. This framework already highlights the politics ofpower between the colony and the empire (see Example 8).


1. U Po Kyin embodies the inherent power in the figure of the Colonised in his ability to penetrate the European psyche: “No European cares anything about proofs. When a man has a black face, suspicion is proof. A few anonymous letters will work wonders. It is only aquestion of persisting; accuse, accuse, go on accusing – that is the way with Europeans” (Burmese Days 12).

He uses his understanding of difference to assert his power in manipulating the system he knows so well (albeit within the Imperial ideology), which in turnreinforces the status quo. The adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” applies to the way in which U Po Kyin functions within the text. His ability to read and analyse people is what gives him the power to destroy his enemies internally.

2. Dr. Veraswami is aware of the underhanded threat U Po Kyin poses on his prestige (the be-all and end-all of the colonial subject’s identity): “My friend, in these matters prestige iss everything. It iss not that U Po Kyin will attack me openly; he will libel me and backbite me. And whether he issbelieved or not depends entirely upon my standing with Europeans”. The signifier “prestige” holds great value as it is a linguistic and physical manifestation of power in the Colonial framework and the knowledge of its power is what gives the various characters the feeling of having the upper-hand [another form of power].

3. Both U Po Kyin and Dr. Veraswami see gaining club membership would up their prestige in society, which in itself is their willing subscription into the Colonial framework of power, which in turn gains its power [prestige] from the reverence of the colonial subjects who regard a place in the club as a highly coveted honour.

4. Flory is able to deactivate his power as a Colonist by refusing to subscribe to the behavioral codes supporting the Colonial ideology (by not behaving asother white men in colonies do).  However, to what extent is he successful in separating himself from the hierarchy of the hegemony if he is permanently marked by his whiteness, which codes him almost unforgivingly and permanently in the text (vis-a-vis Ma Hla May).

5. Flory rejects his identity as Colonist and is in turn rejected by the Colonists for his “Bolshie” ideas (34).  This puts Flory in the position of the reluctant colonist as he struggles against the identity he is inextricably linked to (that of a non-native).

It is this inextricable tie Flory has to his identity as a European man that ultimately leads to his failure to struggle against the Colonial power structure, as he behaves like a Colonist in the end: his convictions in defending Dr. Veraswami are only secondary to his feelings of solidarity and fraternity towards the Englishmen.  Secondly, his love for Elizabeth Lackersteen is what kills him in the end, as his choosing of the white woman over his Burmese mistress highlights a kind of implicit acknowledgmentof the English code of conduct.

6. Although skin color is a marker for power in the colonial context, race becomes a performative element more than anything, as the native “finds himselfrewarded for performing according to the codes of the dominant power, whereas an Englishman who attempts ‘going native’ even incompletely finds himself ostracized and disoriented” (Waterman 95).

This implies the power gained by U Po Kyin is one that reinforces the Colonial power structure as it involves him acting within his boundaries, understanding the European psyche while remaining outside the European demarcation.  His whiteness becomes a promise of power to Ma Hla May who reacts to him because of this physical marker, which supplies the power he deactivated by conscious choice.

7.  As Seshagiri writes, “rape becomes an unquestioned privilege and by-products of masculine colonial ambivalence,” U Po Kyin’s rape of young girls being akey example of this literal form of sexual aggression (57).  Tom Lackersteen’s penchant for Burmese prostitutes, Maxwell and his Eurasian mistress, and of course, Flory and his prominent affair with Ma Hla May, all act as examples of a kind soft-rape, sexual aggression directed at women co-opted into the system by having to serve the role of companion-consort without the legitimate ideological marker of “wife”.

8.  Ma Hla May, like Burma, is servile and engages Flory in the Master/Slave dialect that parallels the Colonial ideology.  She is left in the end as Burma is in the wake of imperialism: “Look how he has ruined me! Look at these rags I am wearing!” (273).  Yet her predicament post-Flory seems almost intuitive of a post-colonial Burma: “her good looks are all but gone, and her clients pay her only four annas, and sometimes kick her and beat her… she regrets the good time when Flory was alive” (285).

9.  Similarly, Elizabeth Lackersteen embodies the mercenary attitude of the Colonial mission in her potential unions.  The figure of the burra memsahib fits her well as she rules with fear over those she does not (want to) understand, and has the greatest disdain for.


This presentation gave a fresh perspective to the politics of Colonial power.  In previous weeks, we had looked at the Colonial framework as a bureaucratic hierarchy that focused on the marginalisation of and subjugation of the native figure.  Orwell’s text read within Foucault’s theory allows us to see how the constantly shifting nature of power makes it possible for even the natives to have agency and a kind of voice (albeit weak) in the Colonial mission.  Our discussion regarding narratives and the mute or oppressed voice of the subaltern are re-evaluated with the ideas thrown up in this presentation.

In the colonies, the minority had control over the majority as power was almost literally grabbed out of the hands of the natives.  However, the fact remains that although the Colonial discourse was set by the British, it only succeeded and reached the extent it did because of he aid of natives, the emphasis being on the two-way power (Master/Slave) dialectic.  With the natives imbibing the Western formulation of power, the notion of heirarchy and white superiority is enforced without active pursual.  U Po Kyin’ success and Flory’s death suggests that natives are complicit in reinforcing power hierarchy, being dependent on the Colonist for this power.

‘Positions’ of reading

Reading the Achebe reading, I couldn’t help but feel that he was taking a lot of Conrad’s racism too personally. Then, in the course of reading up for my presentation, I came across a reading by Nina Pelikan Straus, “The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness””. Straus talks about how women have been excluded both in and out of the text—how the women in the text are silenced and ‘protected’ from the ‘truth’.

One of the most interesting question Straus asks is whether the female reader can really ‘rely’ on her reading of the text, or if she would be stuck at questioning her responses to it as being coloured by the ‘trauma’ of male suppression in and out of the text.

For me, what was significant about reading these two readings in relation to each other was the fact that Straus seems much more self-aware about a reader’s ‘baggage’ in reading any text. Although I’m personally more pro-colonised, and less pro-feminist, I really felt that the Straus article gave me more insight into the text, and my position as a reader, than the Achebe reading. Although it seems like a self-evident point that every reader comes with his/her own baggage, what the Straus reading highlighted to me was that this shouldn’t just a fact to be taken for granted, but one to be questioned and considered as well. What kind of position am I as a reader taking, and how was that position shaped? Should I try to read from another position, or is it pointless to try, because even that is in itself shaped by other, more dominant trends?