Ann Stoler writes in “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” that “Colonial observers and participants in the imperial enterprise appear to have had unlimited interest in the sexual interface of the colonial encounter”, and that “The tropics provided a site for European pornographic fantasies” (43). The Orient has always been sexed and sexualized as a woman, perhaps most memorably in the harems of One Thousand and One Nights. Stoler points out that the “sexual submission and possession of Oriental women by European men” easily become “graphic representations of colonial dominance” (44). She cites Edward Said, who described Orientalism as both a “male perception of the world” and a “male power fantasy” (44). This corresponds directly and obviously with the male sexual gaze of Oriental women. What Stoler insists, however, is that this sexual domination is of more symbolic than pragmatic significance.
In Chapter Four of Burmese Days, George Orwell introduces Ma Hla May, the native mistress of the European protagonist James Flory. The entire scene of sexual intercourse together with the attendant shame which Flory experiences strongly suggests the link between sexual and imperial domination. First of all, I disagree with Stoler, and find that the sexual domination of Oriental women is far from merely symbolic. It is a harsh reality with tangible consequences, and is often a facet or an extension of the injustices of imperialism. What I would like to draw attention to, however, is Orwell’s portrayal of the Oriental woman in Ma Hla May. On the surface it is a stereotypical depiction, yet it also bears interesting departures from the usual object of male European fantasy.
There is a heavy sense of disillusionment which overhangs Burmese Days. Part of this disillusionment is with the Oriental woman, the fantasy of which is dispelled. Ma Hla May is physically described as “an outlandish doll, and yet a grotesquely beautiful one” (52). While she is attributed with physical beauty, it is more of a vague and theoretical kind of beauty. There is greater emphasis on the grotesquery of her appearance, as well as the lack of femininity in her “contourless” (52) frame, at least from the European point-of-view. As with the natural landscape of Burma, Orwell sets up a contrast between the expectation of fantasy against experience of reality. Ma Hla May hardly seems attractive to Flory. She seems to bring remorse and vexation more than she does pleasure or satisfaction. Her strongest distinguishing characteristic is her covetousness, her voice is “high-pitched” (52), and the “scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil” (52) which follows her is not a pleasant fragrance, but a lingering pungence which Flory is unable to rid himself of. In the scene of shame, after having had sex with Ma Hla May, Flory “buried his face disgustedly in the pillow, which was damp and smelt of coco-nut oil” (54).