The hope that language offers

Fanon’s article “The Negro and Language” mentions how white men have a tendency to ‘talk down’ to natives, citing the example of the priest who spoke pidgin-nigger to Achille. Fanon then asserts that white men “talking to Negroes in this way gets down to their level, it puts them at ease, it is an effort to make them understand us, it reassures them” (32).

Upon reading this, I was strongly reminded of what Ellis said to his servant in Burmese Days:

“Don’t talk like that, damn you – ‘I find it very difficult!’ Have you swallowed a dictionary? ‘Please, master, can’t keeping ice cool’ – that’s how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can’t stick servants who talk English” (Orwell 26).

These few sentences perfectly encapsulate what Fanon is getting at; Ellis demonstrating exactly how the servant “ought to talk” reflects how the “European has a fixed concept of the Negro” (35) as linguistically inferior, and thus “nothing is more astonishing than to hear a black man express himself properly, for then in truth he is putting on the white world” (36). By speaking in proper English, the servant is demonstrating not just his mastery of the colonizer’s language, but also implies assimilation in the colonizer’s world (think about how the Negro ‘newcomer’ speaking only in French demonstrates “the extent of his assimilation” (36)). This is why Ellis says he will have to sack the servant if he speaks English too well, as that would break down the distinctions between colonizer and colonized, master and servant.

Speaking the colonizer’s language is therefore equivalent to taking on a world, a culture (Fanon 38). However, ‘talking down’ to the native is not merely about taking on a language that the colonized can understand. Rather, it is a means of reassuring the colonizer that he ‘talks down’ to the colonized because he KNOWS the limits of their comprehension, the impossibility of their understanding perfect English. It thus reinforces his superiority and justifies white rule. Knowledge is power, and the people who have the power to ‘know’ and to speak, are those who write history – think about Alfred Russel Wallace’s article, where he ‘knows’ the natives and thus has the power to write about them.

Therefore, “mastery of [the colonizer’s] language affords remarkable power” (Fanon 18) for the colonized, for it means the hope of being on the same level as the whites. However, in mastering and choosing to speak the colonizer’s language in his native land, the Negro newcomer is now seen as a “joke” (25) to his own people, an ‘Other’, as he is neither completely black nor white. It thus appears that mastery of the colonizer’s language is never a real solution, as not only does it compromise the Negro newcomer’s position among his people, he is never treated on equal grounds as the whites either. The issue of mastering the colonizer’s language is fraught with complexities. While it may not offer an infallible solution to raising the status of the colonized, seeming even like a delusion, it is perhaps all we have, and if we embrace it, we are in the very least offered the hope of reconciliation.

Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10) 2nd Half of Class


To recap, in the first half of class, Prof Koh showed us Michael Kimmel’s video which was centered around the premises that privilege is invisible to those who have it. Prof Koh opens the second half of class by showing us W.H Auden’s “Spain 1937” about the Spanish Civil War that the modernists were involved in and proving that only someone who did not own a gun could write something like that, supporting Kimmel’s statement that privilege is invisible to those who have it. In the second half of class, we discuss this invisibility of privilege, Stoler, power and feminism with regards to Burmese Days and Jessica’s blog entry.

1. Bringing masculine power to the female.

Stoler constructs binaries of how women are supposed to be revealed. No matter how women are portrayed, they are always subject to the male subjugation of power. Jessica sees the actions of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May as bringing masculine power back to the female, therefore empowering them. One notable instance in the novel where we see Elizabeth getting close to power is the hunting scene. Elizabeth welds power when she holds the gun, a symbol of masculine power, and ‘masters’  it when she almost scores a kill with her first shot, thereby utilizing the masculine power for her own purposes.

2. Women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it. Therefore, they can never escape the patriarchal hegemony and attain true power.

Peiyi agrees to a certain extent, she thinks that Elizabeth got exactly what she wanted as she ended up in a more advantageous and powerful position- but she is still subjugated by the masculine ideologies. Her role as a memsahib is only valid within the masculine colonial discourse. However, Yuying points out that Elizabeth does not care, which reinforces Stoler’s discourse that women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it.

3. Women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle.

This also reinforces Stoler’s reading, where she states that women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle through the institution of marriage. Hence, the colonial directory regulates women’s roles and functions. Elizabeth does not possess the reflexivity or empowerment to rise above the situation- she just reinforces what has been programmed in her. In a own way, she is  also a victim. She has already transgressed the space between the country of her birth in order to create another space for her to construct a new whole identity (through marriage), but this identity only reinforces the colonial ideals of power.

4. Are the strongest opponents to feminism women themselves?

Michael Kimmel’s “privilege is invisible to those who have it” is brought into play here. The female (Elizabeth) is able to make the patriarchal system work for her through the institution of marriage, therefore giving the female some sort of power. However, this female empowerment is not universal. In comparison, Ma Hla May has more constraints due to her status as a native concubine. However, Elizabeth does not care about the plight of Ma Hla May. Indeed, Ma Hla May is her competitor. There is no universal bond of sisterhood that ties them together. As such, once Elizabeth attains the masculine power that she wants, she further subjugates and oppresses Ma Hla May and the natives. Hence, feminism is privileged, and women are the strongest opponents to feminism themselves.

5. The connotations of feminism

Prof Koh asks the class how many of us actually consider ourselves feminists, and only three people raise their hands. Kelvin says that the term feminist has a negative connotation. The notion of feminism brings to mind the radical bra-burning and man-hating feminists of the past, which are undesirable in today’s context, where womens’ rights are already pretty much established. Mr Cheng points out that it is because of this radical actions that women suffrage is pioneered today. Perhaps because we are speaking from a privileged position in the twenty-first century, we are unable to comprehend or relate to the pioneer suffragettes. In that sense, as Prof Koh says, we are complacent because we feel the battle has already been won.

6. The role of marriage in society: the social contract vs the sexual contract

The function of marriage has popped up several times in the discussion. Stoler specifically talks about marriage and how this was important in the construction of a colonial society. Elizabeth sees marriage as protection and a means to attain power. Ma Hla May does not have access to marriage with Flory due to her status as a native. However, she does have value in her use of sex and her pseudo-spousal role as a colonial concubine. Here, Prof Koh introduces the ideology of Carol Pateman to us, who argues that the social contract is first bounded upon the sexual contract. The social contract is opposed to patriarchy and patriarchal right, but before one can be a father he needs to have sex first. Therefore the social contract is not founded upon patriarchy, but marriage- hence the sexual contract.


Perhaps the idea that struck me the most this week was Stoler’s argument that the construction of femininity is only valid within the patriarchal circle which is upheld by the sexual contract. This relates to Jing Xuan and Frederick’s presentation the previous week regarding power and Foucault, where power exists only when it is put into action. Feminine power can only exist within the context of masculine power, and can be only exercised when masculine power is exerted. Therefore it is not that the female is unable to break free from the male hegemony, but that feminism requires the presence of male oppression in order to exist. Without gender inequality, there would be no feminism or patriarchy to talk about in the first place. The sexual contract also reveals that one avenue of power available to women is sex, with or without the sanctity of marriage. However, sex and rape share a fine line, as Frederick mentioned in his presentation.

To conclude, Prof Koh brings up the example of the Law of Coverture in Singapore. If a man rapes his legal wife in Singapore, he is able to get away with it as under Singapore law, every woman is essentially male property and her legal rights are covered by the men. It is disturbing to note that the battle for equal female rights is still ongoing today. However, as Ambreen suggests, rather that just talking about gender inequality, we should take off the masks of privilege and concern ourselves with inequality in general.

Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10): Overall Summary

Topic of class + examples

The main focus of the class was on the crisis of gender in modernism; how gender issues created disorder in colonial times, especially with the importation of Englishwomen into the colonial outpost.

–         “Privilege is invisible to those who have it”

The short clip of Michael Kimmel’s lecture on gender studies screen at the beginning of the class was interesting the conceptualization of gender as an analytical framework to be understood in relation to other aspects – race, class, etc. Therefore, gender as a social construct has to be self-conceptualized by the individual. Because of the relativism in the definition of these terms, gender is subjected to the constant state of flux. Nevertheless, society still holds on to notions on how gender is performed; not only women but men too are suppressed by gender expectations.

–         Identity politics: a reflection of men’s desire for order

Performativity may be unnatural, but is not escapable and both men and women inscribe certain gender expectations and qualities in the process of normalization. Patriarchy constitutes not solely male-domination, but broadly societal domination, and in it was raised in the discussion that it is only when things are deemed ‘normal’ that the domineering hegemony can continue to assert its power. In Burmese Days, Orwell employs stock characters in the framework of satire to aid in our reading of gender. An issue raised was the portrayal of Flory as a problematic hero who struggles with his masculine identity, amongst other things. His feminine bond with nature is juxtaposed with his role as a timbre merchant which is suggestive of destruction, and perhaps masculinity. Presented as a double of Flory, virile Verrall is effeminate, but immune to punishment and like Flory he possess emotional stereotypes of women that hinders both their ability to form meaningful heterosexual relationships. Their maintenance of bachelorhood could therefore be as defense against heterosexuality: the ironic performance of masculinity to defend against it.

The replication of gender orders in raising barriers of inclusivity and exclusivity

In this week’s article, “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power”, Ann Stoler illustrates this point in outlining the role of women in reinforcing masculinity. More specifically, she posits that white women are complicit with colonialism and the gender of imperialism in the context of colonial expansionism. In the modernist texts of colonial expansion, gender is employed as an analytical framework in conjunction with other axis of representations, and we see in the texts how women are manipulated in many ways in portrayal of how certain figures are more representative of colonial power. In Passage to India and Burmese Days, for example, the English country club is portrayed as a miniature of British society, a site in which the ruling order sets up the politics of exclusion and inclusion. In this sphere, race is of the first level of exclusivity, followed by gender, making the white women second class members with no activities that are exclusive to them. The club functions as a means of keeping women nearby and out of clutches of native men, but still separate from the white men. Their role is therefore a reinforcement of colonial order and Elizabeth’s entry into Flory’s world forces him to rethink his position and reinforce his masculinity. In this social hierarchy, the power is the white women as agents of the empire is curtailed by their gendered ‘otherness’ and here it was raised the question: why do people say that the biggest opponents to feminism are women themselves?

–         White women as legalized entity vs. the native women as sexualized commodity

In the first half of the class the presenters brought up this interesting binary classification in aid of our understanding of the positions of the white and native women in the social hierarchy of colonial rule. A comparison of the two central female characters of Burmese Days reveal that Ma Hla May has more constrains set upon her than Elizabeth. Not all women are unilaterally opposed to feminism as privileged women are able to negotiate within the existing system, and one of the channels that enable them to do so is through the economy of white heterosexual marriage.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Evident in Burmese Days and Passage to India, romance escapes white heterosexual unions between men and women or is overshadowed by the economy of marriage. Marriage is important for women in the society for without which, they are non-entities in society without marriage. Marriage is for Elizabeth the only means of escaping poverty, spinsterhood and the unwelcome advances of her perpetually inebriated uncle. While marriage to Flory is not an option for Ma Hla May, who can only exist as a sexualized commodity, the only reason she wants Flory to take her back is because she wants to live the life of a white man’s mistress again.

A self-proclaimed fanatic of Candace Bushnell’s ‘Sex and the City’, I found interesting the notion raised that women are more entrapped ideologically than before with the illusion of freedom. Agreeably, the ‘single and fabulous’ women of the sitcom might even come across as feministic in their seemingly independent lifestyles in the absence of men, but each failed relationship seems to undermine their assertion of freedom and confirm that their status as women continues to not be legitimized until they enter matrimonial union with an idealized Mr. Right. Similarly, despite all the freedom Elizabeth and even Adele wish to assume in having a choice in their potential husbands breaking off engagements, they never do escape their existence as legalized entities whose legitimate status can only be affirmed, and even then to a varying degree, in colonial order through the economy of marriage.

Note-taking (Oct 22, Part 1)

This week in class, we began by looking at a short clip of Michael Kimmel giving a lecture on gender studies and it was interesting that we should start with it because he brought up the notion of how gender had always been presumed as a “woman’s problem” and how men do not think that it is about them and this one-sidedness is very political.  Another issue that he brought up was how race complicates the notion of gender and like gender, race is visible only to those are afflicted by it and thus he suggests that by extension privilege is invisible by those who have it. This is interesting because by conflating race with gender politics, he is drawing our attentions to the fact that these social constructs are merely instruments of upholding patriarchal power. Kimmel also discussed that he being a white middle class male, what right does he have to talk about gender and this brings forth the notion of responsibility and right. I think this can be related to Achebe’s article where he discusses his position in trying to redeem the image of Africa, and to a large extent Africans, that was portrayed in Heart of Darkness.

We then moved on to a more general discussion of gender. These were some of the points brought up:

–          Gender as a social construct vs. biological construct of sex and because of the fact that gender is a social construct, there are certain norms ascribed to it that emphasizes the performative aspect of gender.

–          Gender is tied to culture – different views of gender roles in different cultures.

–          Gender as part of a larger issue of identity politics.

–          Even though gender politics tend to highlight the plight of the oppressed women and men perceive that it does not involve them as Kimmel mentioned, both men and women are tied down by these constructions. E.g. boys are told to behave in a boyish manner: to play with toy cars instead of dolls, girls to sit properly etc.

–          This was discussed as a reflection of a kind of social order as a means of disciplining the masses and thereby highlighting the larger issue of the power structure of patriarchy.

–          However, there is also a tendency to bring gender politics into a text that is not necessarily gender biased or even aware of its gender biasness and it may seem forced at times.

–          In a way, this can be seen as an overcompensation for women: because of the long history of oppression done to women, there is a tendency to overcompensate for this long history by labeling every text that even has a tiniest hint of bias against women as misogynistic and oppressive. Here, it was highlighted that this is one of the pitfalls of abstract theorization.

–          However, even though at times it may be seen as an overcompensation, it is important that we do look at texts and apply these gendered readings to them as it is more dangerous to not allow the opportunity of theorizing.

–          Similarly, as Achebe pointed out in his article ‘An Image of Africa’, it would be more dangerous to simply see Heart of Darkness as a text about the degeneration of a European mind than to accuse Conrad of being a racist.

–          Gender, like all social constructs, is seen as a kind of marker, a means of establishing a form of typicality

–          The issue of stereotypes was raised by our guest speaker, and he established the fact that there is nothing wrong with stereotypes as it is a way of gaining access to something one does not know, however, it starts becoming dangerous when one solely relies one’s view of a gender/race/etc. on it and that enforcement of these stereotypes without clarification is dangerous.

–          Gender is a fluid/changing construct and at times most take it for granted that the social norms of gender are universal, when in fact they are not. An example given: the hijras in India who are considered the third sex and even though as a group, they do not have a place in the so-called universal social construction of gender, they are revered in India.

–          Our guest speaker also clarified the origins of the term ‘patriarchy’ in that it was not originally associated with men, but with power but because of the evolution of the power structure such that men were the dominant group in power for much of history, the term patriarchy eventually became associated with the rule of men.

–          It would be useful to look at Foucault’s theory of productive power as a means of analyzing gender politics.

This week’s presentation concentrated on gender oppression and modernism in Burmese Days. The crisis of gender in modernism was highlighted. The notion that modernism, classified as high art, was considered a male domain was discussed as  problematic and at times, this misogynistic view is seen in texts. It is interesting that in this module itself we are studying modernist works of male authors. Are we too partaking in the idea that modernism as high art is a male domain?

The presentation discussed gender oppression, but it concentrated largely on the oppression of women in the text and it seems that we, as readers, tend to fall into the trap of what Kimmel talked about, thinking that gender oppression is a women’s problem. Peiyi clarified the fact that men too are oppressed in Burmese Days by gender rules/stereotypes, especially Flory, who in the end dies because of the very fact that he was not able to subscribe to the prescribed notions of his gender and of his race. Moreover, even in Shooting an Elephant, we see that men are oppressed by the masculine imperialist ideology to behave in a certain way. The narrator in Shooting an Elephant has to actively participate in the upholding of said ideology by behaving in a manner fit for a colonialist, his actions are dictated by this ideology. It is because of this that he shoots the elephant even though he does not feel the need to but by doing it, he reinforces his role as a male imperialist in the colonial world. Similarly, in Burmese Days, Flory has to follow the rules of the pukka sahib.

The notion of women being active agents of empire was brought up, a point that Stoler’s article mentions. The way by which the European women treat the natives is seen as their own version of upholding the ideology of empire and by extension gender rules. There is distrust on the part of European women towards the natives and some of it stemming out from a belief that natives are highly sexualized figures and thereby posing a real threat to these women. Thus, by treating the natives in the way that they do, they are upholding the ideology of empire. However, Stoler’s article discusses how this perceived threat was a seed planted by imperialism as a means of using women as the basis of upholding the imperialist ideology.

Women are also seen as craving an access to the imperial project by reinforcing the notions of Englishness and otherness, however, this notion is contested on the grounds whether it is a conscious effort or not. This is seen in Burmese Days with Elizabeth constantly commenting on how ugly the Burmese are and by extension implying that they are ugly because of their very difference to the English. This can be related to the notion of the rule of colonial difference discussed by Chatterjee. Even when Adela in A Passage to India is relatively civil to the natives and shows an interest (albeit superficial) in seeing the “real India”, she is interested in the exoticness of India which seems to suggest that she is interested in the very different way that India contrasts to England and thereby simply reinforcing the notion of colonial difference. Moreover, with Elizabeth’s entrance in Burmese Days, she tries to impose Englishness by bringing up notions of morality and manliness, which eventually lead to the Flory’s demise.

In Heart of Darkness, we also see the role of women in the reinforcement of imperialist ideology and upholding the rule of colonial difference. This is seen in one of the few times in the text where the European woman is being mentioned and it is significant when a woman is mentioned in the text, she only serves to enforce the Englishness/European-ness vs otherness. In the text, the European is described as being the refined opposite of the Amazon with descriptions like “she had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.” Thus, this relates to the point that Peiyi brought up in her presentation that women in the colonial context are seen as either a legalized entity or a disposable commodity. In this case, the European woman is both, because while she is a legalized entity, she is seen as a disposable commodity in the way she is being used to highlight otherness, she can be seen as a mere prop. Similarly, Adela can also be seen in the same light. After the fiasco of the trial, she appears to be discarded like a commodity because her use as an imperial ideological tool had ceased.

Orwell a true anti-imperialist?

Most critics see “Burmese Days” as Orwell’s reaction against the atrocities he witnessed in Burma and thus are quick to categorize “Burmese Days” as an anti-imperialist text. While the anti-imperialist elements in the text are obvious – Flory’s discourses on the ills of imperialism etc, Orwell seemed to have failed in dissociating himself completely from imperialist discourse. This is especially so in his portrayal of natives. The novel does not have a single fully respectable native character. U Po Kyin is a scheming native, Dr V. is a imperialist parrot, mindlessly extolling the values of imperialism. Even Ma Kin, U Po Kyin’s wife who initially seemed like a potential check against the greediness of her husband was eventually enticed by the idea of gaining club membership. As for the Nationalist movement in Burma, Orwell seemed to be belittling its work altogether. In “Burmese Days”, the final rebellion is less of a nationalist movement, and more of a revenge against Ellis. Thus, it seemed odd that in an anti-imperialist text, native characters are portrayed as poorly as they are in earlier pro-imeperialist text.

I think the discrepancy really points to how Orwell is unable to disentangle himself from earlier discourses. While he removes himself from the ideals of imperialism, he has yet to find a new discourse that can effectively represent his new ideas. Specifically, Orwell has not found a new discourse the natives. Indeed, this is the most positive way to see Orwell, the anti-imperialist. If it is not a problem of representation, then Orwell falls back into the category of writers/thinkers who are anti-imperialist but racist. My own position probably falls in the middle of these two extremes. I think that Orwell has not sufficiently considered the position of the natives and is primarily concerned with the white man’s position in the colonized land. Therefore, he is unable to find a new discourse to talk about the natives. Yet, his lack of consideration for the native position is essentially a self-centred (white, male self) and therefore a racist attitude.

The Fantasy of the Oriental Woman Dispelled

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).

The politics of prostitution

Orwell does not seem to like women very much. In Burmese Days he inadvertantly makes the claim that all women, both colonial and colonizer class, are the same, and that women have to prostitute themselves in order to attain some worth in the eyes of the male colonizer, where prostitution involves the act of selling oneself to the male colonizer, physically or otherwise.

The white woman constantly needs to assert herself in looking for a white colonizer class husband, especially while overseas. Elizabeth embodies this in her quest to marry a man who can to make her a burra memasahib. While she seems flighty and rather shallow for jumping from white man to white man, she is merely doing what women of her race are expected to do in order to keep their self worth.

For the native woman, she is told from birth that to be a concubine of a white man is far better off than anything else she could become. The male colonizers are even encouraged to keep  or even marry native women, as they are less expensive to maintain than a female member of the colonizing country. Ma Hla May can hardly be blamed for trying to win back Flory from Elizabeth, as it has been impressed upon her all her life that to service a white colonizer accords her a status that makes her life worth living.

This implies that the one of the only forms of power that women have over men has to do with sexuality and sex. It also means that a woman’s worth is measured by whether or not she has managed to attract a male from the colonizer class. As a result, women have to prostitute themselves if they wish to attain some sort of power in a world ruled by white males.

Colonialism in different forms

I remember having read before, that Colonialism started from the periphery, that is the center of the European community within the colonialised country. As taught during A level’s history, the core of colonialism was the European men. Yet, after reading Ann Stoler’s article this week, I cannot help but wonder if this periphery refers to the European women instead. As mentioned in my post from last week, I felt that women perpetuated colonialism through their expectations of servitude from the natives and the way they maintained their beliefs about the superiority of the white men.

Stoler mentioned in the article that  the European women in colonies had “ambiguous positions, as both subordinates in colonial hierachies and as agents of empire in their right.” Indeed, in Burmese days, the European women seemed to be dependent on men for survival and this is amplified in the fact that marriage served as a ticket to social power as seen in Elizabeth’s desperate atempts to marry as she sees it as a solution to her poverty. One cannot neglect the fact that she is also the character who persistently reminds Flory abeit subtly of his position and responsibility as a white man.

In class last week, it was mentioned that the influx of European women into colonies was to prevent any further increase in the number of mixed- race children, a result of European men having relationships with native women. The fact that the European women were brought into the colonies is symbolic of their positions as the “police” of white men and therefore, as agents of empire. To me then, this is suggestive of the idea that colonialism can exist in different forms.

The myth of Flory as a reluctant colonist

I have been thinking about what we have been discussing in class – mainly, the concept of the reluctant colonist. What exactly is a reluctant colonist was the question that filled my mind. I had a feeling that the concept – reluctant colonist explores the humanistic attitude of a man that conflicts with the need of white man to keep the natives where they are – marginalised and inferior in order to continue their capitalistic enterprise. In other words, isn’t a reluctant colonist inherently a contradiction? Is it ever possible to be both a colonist and a humanist? I think the character of Flory as a reluctant colonist, as discussed commonly in class, is a good site of discussion.

As discussed in class, I find that it is most certainly that the idea of identity should not be confused with a person’s action. In other words, a person’s action does not always express who a person really is. This is why I feel that in Burmese Days, the added dimension of Flory’s thoughts provide readers with an valuable insight to the situation in a colony. As a result of the added dimension, I find it difficult to accept Flory as a reluctant colonist, a term that many have tied him with in class, even if they do not like him much. At the most, I would see him as a sentimental colonist. He might not like what some of the other white men are doing – especially Ellis who openly expresses his condescension towards the natives. However, Flory only expresses it in secrecy towards Dr V. He could have easily assumed a different hiererachy in his own household, instead, his household is like any other colonist household where the servant looks up to the master. Furthermore, he has done many things that he is guilty of racism – like his reluctant signing of the notice just because he “lacked the courage that was needed to refuse” (63). Also, he was given the chance to return to his homeland of which he decided to return halfway because he saw the opportunity to prosper economically.

What I am pointing at are the opportunities for Flory to put his thinking into action even when it is within his means. He could have left Burma when he had the chance but decidedly came back. His lack of action may not correspond with his feeling/thinking but the total lack of it in many occasions got me reluctant to see him as a reluctant colonist.

Women and Empire

Stoler seems to highlight exactly how tenuous and precarious are the women’s relationships with the patriarchal colonial empire, ‘because of their ambiguous positions, as both subordinates in colonial hierarchies and as agents of empire in their own right’ (41). As much as the men and perhaps even more so, white women in the outskirts of empire have to articulate their femininities via the constructed roles created for them by colonialism, most often through the choice (or lack thereof) of men they pick in marriage, in order to command the status, riches and respect as the “burra memsahib”.

 Stoler’s reading becomes interesting in her suggestion that European women are crucial to the reinforcement of colonial boundaries and imperial hierarchies through ‘bolstering a failing empire and to maintaining the daily rituals of racialized rule’ (56). In Burmese Days this becomes particularly relevant because the caricature of the burra memsahib in Elizabeth typifies such a woman. Strict racial lines are drawn as she rejects Flory’s attempts to show her native life in Burma, by turning her nose in disgust at the festive show, the Chinese merchant shop and even refusing to step into the headman’s house. It seems peculiar that Orwell inverses the sexual power relationship between Flory and Elizabeth whose relationship was doomed from the start because Flory was never the sahib that he ought to behave as, while Elizabeth represented too much of the idealized English woman he could never possess. Elizabeth’s final rejection of Flory because of her hatred for his ‘dishonorable’ and ‘unforgivable’ birthmark also takes on racial and symbolic overtones as Flory is deemed to transgress racial frontiers when his liaison with Ma Hla May was brought to light.

Red and Yellow, Black and White, all Cogs in the System of Colonialism.

One of the fascinating things I found in reading Burmese Days was the universality of depravity expressed through every character in the novel, regardless of race or background. Orwell has a curious way of breaking down the constructed barriers between native and colonial, as seen in both “Shooting an Elephant” and Burmese Days, and I found this particularly refreshing. It seems as if the underlying message he is trying to convey is always that at the end of the day, and at the conclusion of all discourse, men are fundamentally the same. Nowhere is this clearer than at two key points in the novel – the riot outside the club, and the events following Flory’s suicide.

During the riot, the tables are curiously turned on the Europeans, who in their panic realise firstly that they are, for all their big talk, in real danger from the locals. Secondly, they realise that even amongst themselves, they are equalised in the face of mortal threat. No degree of perceived superiority is sufficient when faced with life’s great equaliser: death.

Which brings us to the events following Flory’s suicide, which essentially indicate a kind of equalising death for all parties involved. U Po Kyin achieves his goal of club membership and a promotion, but promptly dies three days later, without ever having the chance to redeem himself for all his crimes. He is in this way doubly dead, for not only is it a physical death he dies, he dies without any hope of a better life. Dr. Veraswami’s reputation is utterly destroyed, and even Elizabeth dies a kind of death by marrying Mr. Macgregor, who would not in any event have been her first choice of husband.

Perhaps then the truest message of colonialism is, ironically, that all men, at some point in life (or death), are really equal. And it would take the realisation of their own mortality to really bring that about.

How White women aggravated the inter-racial divide

In Burmese Days, Orwell foregrounds how white women perform the roles of ‘segregators’ and reinforce the inter-racial divide between the whites and natives. Mrs. Lackersteem is constantly enforcing some sort of surveillance upon her husband, never letting him ‘out of her sight for more than one or two hours’, after having caught him drunk with naked Burmese women (p.21). Elizabeth’s entry into Burma also forces Flory to repent on his ‘UnEnglishness’ and cast off his ties with Ma Hla May. The only two white women in Burma parallel each other in terms of their racial prejudices and treatment of the natives. As contemplated by Elizabeth, “After all, the natives were natives –interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people with black faces” (p. 118).

As revealed by Ann Stoler, the import of white women into colonial outposts did serve a crucial, ideological purpose as the women became agents of the Empire, performing and propagating the racial divide intended by colonial authorities. Their presence denied the white men from establishing physical contacts with the native women and reinforced in them the importance of upholding the image as the white, imperial figure. Inter-racial relations and sexual communions were thus prevented, preserving the ‘whiteness’ and the unblemished superiority of the white race.

European women: savior-scapegoats of Empire

As I was reading Stoler’s article, it seems that whatever she said seems to be applicable to A Passage to India. This is especially so when she says that “Their (European women) presence and safety was repeatedly invoked to clarify racial lines.” (57) Recalling  A Passage to India, the Anglo-Indians used the pretext of a supposed attack on Adela as a means of clarifying the racial lines that Stoler talks about. It was after the supposed attack had happened that they started proclaiming how wrong it was to even think that the natives were any bit civilized as to even host a bridge party for them. Moreover, Stoler also mentions that “European women needed protection from the “primitive” sexual urges aroused by the sight of them.” (58) Again, recalling A Passage to India, even though Aziz himself found Adela to be quite ugly and rather unattrative, the Anglo-Indians already had this mindset of the sexualized native and seized upon the opportunity that presented as a means of upholding the racial distinctions and thereby to punish the native as a way of putting them in their place.

I entitled my post “European women: savior-scapegoats of Empire” because of the fact that even though they are being heralded as the ones to be protected, they are at the same time “frequently blamed for provoking their (the natives) desires.” (60) Again, in A Passage to India, when Adela refused to testify against Aziz, she was similarly blamed which seems to imply a classic case of blaming the victim. Thus, European women in the colonies seem to have it much worse than women back in Europe for they are being used as emblems of colonial laws but at the same time being blamed for being what they are.

Further, in Burmese Days, even the natives tend to have a greater hate for European women such that “englishwomen [were] considered a race apart, possibly not even human.” (115) In a way, the European women are almost worse off than the native women as they are being scapegoated for the harsh laws that the colonial government impose on the natives even though they cannot really do much about it. These women also tend to not have a choice when being sent to the colonies to be married off, as Elizabeth in Burmese Days, having to choose living a life of relative poverty in Europe or being the savior-scapegoat of Empire.

Women as a symbol for the Empire

In Burmese days, Flory and Dr Verswami referred directly to the British Empire as “an aged female patient” (37), worn and weary from the physical afflictions which she has to bear. This vision of the empire is comic and apt because the Empire does have many illnesses, albeit not of a physical but moral nature. One of such is the hypocrisy and double standard of morality in the sexual conduct of colonizers in the colonies where a male colonizer is allowed to have sexual relations with the native women whilst any hint of physical contact between a native man and a female colonizer would have resulted in an outcry of rape.

This is due to the colonial anxiety that power relations could be reversed and the figure of the vulnerable white woman who needs to be protected is a projection of this fear. Sexual relations between the white male colonizer and the native female can only exist to reinforce the existing power relations where the concubine is like the colony, to be exploited under the pretext of a degree of privilege enjoyed by the native subjects. 

The female colonizers who maintain their physical distance from the natives and refuse to adapt to the native culture, such as Mrs Lackersteen who refused to learn a word of  the language despite having been in the country for twenty years and Elizabeth who loathes contact with them are the means by which the essence of being a sahib is preserved. Whilst the white males may be forced to interact with the natives for commercial reasons, the women are kept pristine and sullied, just like the motherland that remains aloof and disconnected from the realities of empire. It is no wonder then that the women sicken physically and become yellow faced and thin when physically confronted with a climate which they are ill-suited to. The beauty of the English rose (colonial pretensions) rapidly wilts in the face of harsh reality in the colonies. Whilst the men experience moral decline, the women exhibit it physically thus the aged old woman is an apt metaphor for the afflicted empire.

The impartiality of the law

As I was reading Orwell’s Burmese Days, the unequal treatment of the law struck a chord within me. This brought to mind the image of Lady Justice with her blindfolds that symbolize the impartiality of the law. In Orwell’s Burma, Lady Justice is blind to the faults of the whites and intolerant with the natives (of course, Lady Justice is herself European…) So of course, Maxwell’s shooting of a native is justified but the killing of Maxwell by the native’s relatives is not. His death angers the European community simply because the life of a white man is of greater value than that of a native: “Eight hundred people, possibly are murdered every year in Burma; they matter nothing; but the murder of a white man is a monstrosity, a sacrilege” (Orwell, p. 248). The whites are then anxious to ensure that the culprits are punished by the law for Maxwell’s death. Where is the morality in that then? After all, Maxwell did commit murder as well. This reminded me of Stoler’s article on ‘Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power’ where she says that “sexual abuse of black women was not classified as rape and therefore was not legally actionable, nor did rapes committed by white men lead to prosecution (Stoker, p.58). Crimes committed by the white man to the natives are not punishable by the law and the perpetrators go away scot-free by virtue of their race and gender. This is further reinforced by the incident where Ellis blinds a Burmese and angers the villagers. The natives understand that there can be no impartiality for them in the eyes of the law: “We know that there is not justice for us in your courts, so we must punish Ellit ourselves” (Orwell, p.257). In the colonies, the law protects those in power and discriminates against the natives. How then can the natives win? Isn’t colonization supposed to be beneficial for the colonies? Despite the civilizing mission and the claims that the empire brings beneficial influences to the colony, the injustices of the empire are illuminated in Burmese Days.

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.

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.

Note-taking for second half of Week 9

Today’s class discussion focused mainly on ideas about the enforcement of colonialism, in various ways and means:

1. We discussed the threat posed by children of mixed parentage to the ‘rule of colonial difference’,

2. the ways the colonial state manipulated laws to justify its actions, and

3. the position and portrayal of the reluctant coloniser.

The first part of the discussion looked at Stoler’s article, where we considered the treatment of metis children as illustrated by the Sieur Icard case. Here, we discussed the ways in which ‘whiteness’ becomes problematised by the existence of the metisse, which blurs the lines between ‘white’ and ‘native’. At the same time, we also considered how colonial law and lawmakers were still able to exert their power by enforcing arbitrary definitions of ‘whiteness’ (in both a demonstration and assertion of their superiority). For example, not only did the colonial court have the ‘last say’ in the legal treatment of the metisse, it also tried to control the situation by enforcing laws that ‘decided’ on the status of metis children as white or native.

We then moved on to think about the links between the Stoler article and Burmese Days. Here, we discussed how Flory could be seen as a metis figure himself, because of his birthmark, which makes him half ‘dark’. We then considered various ways of reading Orwell’s portrayal of the two Eurasian characters in the novel, and how this reflected his attitudes towards them. Firstly, his portrayal of them as lowly clerks, and his likening of them to dogs possibly reflected his low regard of them. (“The two Eurasians had sidled up to Flory and cornered him like a pair of dogs asking for a game.” Chapter 10)) At the same time, some of us felt that his portrayal of them was rather sympathetic, and read this in two ways. (“Elizabeth had, in fact, decided to snub the Eurasians. She did not know why Flory was allowing them to hold him in conversation. As she turned away to stroll back to the tennis court, she made a practice stroke in the air with her racquet, to remind Flory that the game was overdue. He saw it and followed her, rather reluctantly, for he did not like snubbing the wretched Francis, bore though he was.” (Chapter 10)). Firstly, this could be Orwell’s deliberate denunciation of the imperialist actions that resulted in the existence of these metis children, and another angle from which to criticise colonialism. Secondly, that Orwell himself did not know how to portray these figures, as they were too ‘sensitive’ an issue. Considering this led to a discussion on where we hear Orwell’s voice in the text, and whether or not Flory can be seen as Orwell’s mouthpiece. While we considered that Flory, as the reluctant colonialist, could be Orwell (as the narrator in Shooting an Elephant could have been), this brought up the question of why, if Flory represents Orwell, he dies in the novel. This led to a consideration of Orwell’s guilt in having taken part in the colonial enterprise, and Burmese Days as his way of coping with that guilt. Looking at Flory as a reluctant colonialist, we compared him with Fielding, and also discussed why Orwell creates all these unsympathetic characters in the text, which led to questions about whether Elizabeth could be the real protagonist in the text, and how all this affected conveying Orwell’s message to the reader.We then considered that perhaps Flory is not Orwell’s mouthpiece, and that Orwell’s voice is not heard in the text, but rather, Orwell chose to show a ‘reality’ of the colonial situation, leaving it up to the reader to read what meaning we chose into the text.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

As mentioned above, this week’s discussion continued the consideration of the figure of the reluctant coloniser that was also present in Passage to India and Shooting and Elephant. Furthermore, we also used the idea of rule of colonial difference brought up in the Chatterjee article to consider the place and portrayal of the metisse in Stoler’s article. We also considered how Orwell is quite different in style from previous writers in the module, as rather than giving a clear message the way Forster did in Passage to India, he leaves it rather open to the reader to make meaning of the text. Furthermore, unlike Conrad, women are not silenced in this text, (consider the fact that some of us consider Elizabeth the ‘real’ protagonist). Orwell presents a fairly different picture of colonialism compared to Forster and Conrad, for the focus of the novel is clearly the reluctant coloniser and the problems that come with that position.

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).

Stoler and Orwell

I found Stoler’s discussion of the “interior frontier” very intriguing. To think of mixed blood offspring as such a threat politically, morally, and sexually raises a lot of questions about the colonial enterprise and the civilizing mission. When paired with Burmese Days modern readers are also able to get a sense of what living at that time in those places might have been like.

Orwell has been described by some as a realist in his works. I can see that. His style of writing is very different from Conrad’s. Where Conrad would use close-up imagery to let his readers feel the tone Orwell takes it step by step. He explains things in detail in a matter-of-fact manner. He is also not like Forster who had the ability to make sweeping movements in his descriptive passages. Orwell uses the surface as something smooth and slippery, like it could reflect us but not let us see into the depths of the picture. This is why I can feel frustration, like the sweltering heat he describes, build and latch onto the characters like the crowd did in Shooting and Elephant. The sense that imperialism has that kind of weight on a writer says a lot about society. In this way, what is important is the emotional truth of Orwell’s work.

I think this can compare to Stoler’s article. The metissage really had no outlet. They were not allowed to be fully European nor could they be a native in everyone’s eyes. I can see where this is especially true with women who married native men and their children. If political rights were divvied out through the father’s side, the children would not have the same rights as their mother and this could be a disadvantage in regards to future education, marriageability, and careers. However, if the children were given the same or similar rights to their mother this could be hard on the family in that it might undermine the father’s role in the home. The repressive nature in the latter years of the colonial period can be seen through both tough legislations and works of fiction.

English Club and performation of the ‘white’ identity

Throughout the novel, Orwell frequently uses the symbol of the English Club as a locus of actions where the perfomation of identity as a pukka sahib is most ostensible and the English men and women in Burma constantly reinforce each other’s ‘whiteness’ and superiority over the Burmese. It is important to note that in spite of the violent mob carried out by the natives in their anger over Ellis’ abuse of the school boys, the English Club emerges from the crisis shaken, but with all its essential principles and racism intact. There continues to be objections to electing a native representative to the club and the desperation to preserve the club as an all-white domain remains strong. In addition, not only did the English men not blame Ellis for the outbreak of the upheaval, they fault the natives for the disorder throughout the entire process. The English club is not only a recognized institution of power by the white men, but by the locals as well. Dr. Veraswami associates the membership with eternal protection and superiority, satisfied to be an ‘adjunct’ to the white man. U Po Kyin also recognises this and plans to grab this privilege for himself by eliminating Dr. Veraswami altogether.
The English Club is perhaps, also a center of survelliance whereby the Anglo-indians must confront each other and ensure that their superiority as the white race would not be compromised by any unbecoming beahviour by any of the members. For instance, Flory is constantly being rebuked for his ties with Veraswami and in front of the members, he hardly dares to speak up for his true beliefs and express the disdain for the imperial ideology, and is constantly torn between his private and social identity.

Inclusion, History and Identity

When I started reading the Stoler reading, I kept finding my mind wandering back to Orwell as the isolated intellectual, especially when Stoler began talking about national identity, education and inclusion. I guess I’m curious as to whether Orwell would have been quite so isolated in “Shooting an Elephant” if these educational measures had been in place. (Perhaps the same question could be extended to Flory in Burmese Days…although I’m not sure he falls in the same category as Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant”.)

In terms of national identity, I guess this reading answers some of the questions I’d had about where history came in to the creation of a national identity. I took a class a few semesters ago that dealt with  Nationalism and the Arts: we had a guest student sitting in from Harvard who happened to make the comment that Singapore hasn’t had enough time to build a clear identity because we were less than half a century old. The professor was quick to point out that Singapore has been around for more than 50 years, it was just Independence that came much more recently.

Using Stoler’s tie-together of history and national identity, I suppose one root of having a national identity comes of having a shared history. I can see how colonialism problematizes national identity, considering the “shared history” suddenly becomes “shared histories”–one of which is placed in a more dominant position than perhaps an indigenous concept of identity tied to place.

I’m fairly curious as to the origin of “nationhood.” Is it a colonial/postcolonial construct?

Flory’s birthmark

It was put forth that Flory would have been the man Orwell would have become if he had chosen to stay on in Burma. Flory, very much modeled after the figure of Forster’s Fielding but undoubtedly a shadow of Orwell himself; is not afraid to joke with his close doctor confidante that ‘the British Empire was an aged female patient of the doctor’s’, speak surreptitiously about the true nature of imperialism in various analogies, as the ‘official holds the Burman down while the business man goes through his pockets’, and half-detest and admire his fellow Europeans for not possessing the same clairvoyance as he does, yet Flory is much too cowardly and incapable of standing up for his native doctor friend to arrest the self-pitying situation which he is contend to thrive in.

The same Flory is similarly capable of exploiting his own patriarchal position vis-à-vis Empire against native women, keeping mistresses for his own lust and pleasure and dismissing them guiltily when he is done with them (Orwell’s ambiguous attitude towards the exploitation of women arises in part from his own experiences). From Flory’s long ranting monologue, the reader gains an insight to the multiple plagues of his life – the ills of alien empire depriving the colonist from the capacity to think and articulate his thoughts, to the dire performativity of the self as dictated by the ‘pukka sahib’s code’, his tacit admission that his roots had grown too deep into Burmese soil, his love-hate relationship with Burma, Empire, and himself, it is not hard to see why Flory is finally driven to suicide. The blue birthmark on Flory’s side of the face, the part of himself which he constantly seeks to suppress in silence and bitterness, surfacing time and again in the novel as a fragmentary reminder that he really  is no different from the others, simply will not go away.

Women as perpetrators of colonialism

Colonialism has been a much debated topic and for many, the focus has always been centered on how it functioned as a tool of not only European superiority but also, a tool for substaining the European patriarchal society. There were instances in the novel which seemed to uphold patriarchal beliefs such as when it was mentioned in the novel that “the women members of the club had no votes.” This corresponded to  our common belief of male domination and the helplessness of the women who were completely dependent on men for their survivor. Yet, after reading the novel, I felt that it made us looked at the position of  the European women in a different light.

The women in the novel seemed to enforce a system of colonialism of their own. This “system of colonialism” was evident in the way the European women entertained certain beliefs and how they sought to impress them onto the behaviour of the white men around them or in the way they judged the natives. Elizabeth exemplified this in the way she chose to uphold her beliefs about the “white man.”  This can be seen in “she was perfectly certain that that was not how white men ought to behave” and “she was grasping, dimly, that his views were not the views an Englishman should hold.” She also perpetuated this system of colonialism in the way she viewed marriage for it was said in the ending of the book that “her servants live in terror of her, although she speaks no Burmese” and “she fills with complete success the position for which Nature had designed her from the first, that of a burra memsahib.” To me, Elizabeth’s “colonialising” of her servants served as an re-enactment of the colonialism enforced by the European men. Here, it is suggested that the “white woman” functioned as a mirror for the “white man.”    

Contrary to the image of a “strong” woman created for the readers through her hunting trip with Flory, in her desperate attempts to find a husband in Flory and Verell respectively, Elizabeth perpetuated the stereotypical image of women who were completely dependent upon marriage  for their livelihood. This hence contributes to the idea that as much as men relied on colonialism to maintain a sort of pride, women also embraced colonialism to maintain order in their lives. As much as the fact that there were changes being affected, the colonial women were unwilling to adapt to the outcomes which these changes might bring and therefore, perhaps strove to uphold colonialism more than the men did. The novel hence, I felt, brought out another truth which we might have neglected with the knowledge which we were being equipped with to look at colonialism. It made us look at the cupability of women which not many of us would have regarded given the fact that the European women were always portrayed as victims in one way or another.

Of course, the flux in the impressions which readers get of Elizabeth in the novel also points out the flux of language.  The complexity of women as both victims and perpetrators shows that perhaps, there are more “truths” to be discovered and this is only possible through the use of language by other writers such as the Anglo- Indian other than the European himself.

Who is free?

As I was reading Burmese Days, I could not help comparing Orwell’s portrayal of the lack of freedom in Burma to the totalitarian society that he painted in his later novels, Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell’s preoccupation with the concept of individual freedom and the restrictions imposed on the individual by the colonial enterprise parallels the dictatorial leadership and the totalitarian society that he paints in his later novels. The character, U Po Kyin reproduces colonial oppression onto the Burmese. The portrayal of tyranny and oppression as embodied by U Po Kyin in Burmese Days takes on a kind of prophetic quality: oppression continues to be enacted in present-day Burma. The dictatorship results in the curtailing of individual freedom and the state surveillance of movement in Burma today. This totalitarian vision of the present eerily reflects the society in Orwell’s later books. I wonder then if colonial oppression is another version of what we now understand as totalitarianism.

The strict state policing of society is further echoed in the week’s readings, ‘Politics of Exclusion in Colonial Southeast Asia’. The article highlights strict state patrol on national identity, specifically with regards to the hybridized identities of children of mixed parentage. The strict definitions of nationality highlights the threat that these hybridized figures poses to the body politic of the European nations, and the European nations’ desire for racial purity. This again brings to mind actual historical events such as the rise of Hitler and the Jewish holocaust that was birthed out of the desire for German racial purity. Yet this fear of racial impurity through interracial unions only highlights the insecurity of the European nations regarding the racial hierarchy and Manichean distinctions between the ruler and the ruled.

No Exit in ‘Burmese Days’

While Stoler’s article was an interesting read, I’ll like to put it aside for this post and comment on something I found rather striking in Orwell’s Burmese Days. In my opinion, Flory’s suicide at the end echoes Konstantin’s one in Chekhov’s play The Seagull. I don’t know if Orwell had Chekhov in mind when writing this novel but the similarities are there: unrequited love/ ‘love’, the banality of existence etc. More importantly, however, I found that like the characters in Chekhov’s plays, the characters in Burmese Days were incapable of  change. Except for Flory (and maybe Ma Kin), nobody else seems to be conscious or critical of the colonial condition. There are no Joyceian epiphanies either. This becomes especially apparent in the last chapter, which works something like those ‘what-happens-to-every-character-after-this’ thing before the credits rolls. We know that everyone continues with the same moral and behavioral pattern. The protagonist’s death becomes just a statistic, a non-event. Somethings, and nothing, happened.

For me, that was perhaps the most shocking aspect of the book- not the violent hunts, not the evil machinations of U Po Kyin, nor the rampant corruption within the system. I wonder if that is why Orwell plants the notion of Buddhist reincarnation within the novel. According to Buddhism, the worst of the hell realms is the one of endless suffering and if I’m not wrong, reincarnation is endless as well (unless one reaches nirvana). For Orwell, the colony is a a kind of breeding ground that only accentuates this sort of utter helplessness and ennui of the modern condition. I think that Orwell was actually already writing about a kind of (colonial) dystopia in Burmese Days because in 1984, Winston and Julia gets converted by Big Brother in the end and nothing has changed for Oceania.

Relationships in Burmese Days

What I found quite interesting about Burmese Days is that the novel seems rather fixated on relationships and marriages—it’s almost an Austen-esque storyline, except that it’s set in colonial Burma. Of course, in Burmese Days, women and relationships have much larger significances and symbolisms, instead of being more the ‘subject’ of the text. For me, the most ‘significant’ relationship is the one between Flory, Elizabeth and Ma Hla May. Reading the text, I felt this ‘triangle’ was one that was quite packed with underlying/deeper significances. Firstly, it’s sort of a metaphor for Flory being caught between Burma and England, with neither being a ‘good fit’, ending in his eventual suicide. Flory is sick of his life in Burma, but still, the experience has changed him so much that he wouldn’t be able to slip back into life back in England. Ultimately, this is the dilemma that defines him in the novel, and it is also what leads to his death.

Yet, his relationship with the two women is not as simple as just a love triangle—he doesn’t love Ma Hla May, and she doesn’t love him either, she just wants the status a relationship with him gives her. Somewhat similarly, Orwell portrays colonialism as  not always altruistic, but also highlights the native collaboration as something that enabled colonialism. Admittedly, this relationship is not exactly a perfect metaphor for the British colonial experience in Burma, but it does serve as a sort of distilled image of the more complicated colonialism that Orwell depicts in his novels.

Burmese Days: The contradiction of colonization

Burmese Days seems to highlight how the system of colonization traps even the colonizer.

One line that really stood out for me while reading the novel was what Ellis said to his servant:

 “Don’t talk like that, damn you – ‘I find it very difficult!’ Have you swallowed a dictionary? ‘Please, master, can’t keeping ice cool’ – that’s how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can’t stick servants who talk English” (Orwell 26).

“We are the masters, and you beggars – ” (Orwell 32)

This reminded me of our class discussion last week. One of the aims of colonization is the education of natives. However, education creates a breed of men who are ‘almost white, but not quite there yet’. Even though it is implied that ultimately natives are unable to attain the same level of civilization as the whites, they are still a kind of mimic men (to borrow Homi K Bha Bha’s terms), an eerie shadow of the colonizer. Thus, this explains Ellis’ violent reaction towards his servant’s use of (proper) English. I cannot help but be reminded of Fanon’s assertion that “the ruling species is first and foremost the outsider from elsewhere, different from the indigenous population, ‘the others’” (5); the colonizer is therefore distinguished from the natives. If the native can attain a grasp of English that is almost on the same level as the white colonizers, it undermines imperial authority, and questions the colonizer’s basis for the “rule of colonial difference” (in Chatterjee’s terms).  

Ellis’ speech thus brings up one of the contradictions of colonization, that in attempting to civilize and educate the natives, they create a haunting image of themselves which in turn destabilizes their authority and justification for rule. We could perhaps say, that this reflects the colonizer/white man’s greatest fear too, that perhaps they aren’t very different from the natives after all.

The state of Women and religion

From where I have stopped in the novel, I managed to make an observation. I am referring to the similarity in the position of native women like Ma Kin, the wife of U Po Kyin, with the state of the native’s religion – Buddhism.

For Ma Kin, her position in the household reflects the belief of Buddhism that women are lower than man – “the same level as a rat or a frog – or at worst as some dignified beast such as an elephant” (8).  However, my issue is with the portrayal of Ma Kin as the more morally upright and charitable figure. This seems to shed light on the shortcoming of Buddhism in its unflattering claims of women as part of the lower form of life. The irony is, the most dedicated person to Buddhism, is one of the most subdued figure in the novel.  Furthermore, Ma Kin’s portrayal is contrastive with her husband’s selfish and self-serving use of the religion to better his afterlife – “My pagodas will atone for everything” (15).  In this case, religion as a moral guide in dictating one’s way of life seems to be in question. Does this suggest that Buddhism as a religion is no longer applicable/relevant after the changes in relationship brought about by the entrance of western colonialism? After all, we can identify the impoverished state of the native’s religion just by looking at the starving monks whose devotion to the religion is ‘rewarded’ with hunger.

Discovering my misogyny through literature

This blog post is going to be be a little anecdotal and is a little bit long, so please bear with me. : )

I did not expect for a passage in ‘Burmese Days’ which made me laugh out loud would lead to my being aware of my own participation in patriarchal misogyny. The passage I’m referring to is the one where we talk about the effects of U Po Kyin’s letter to Mrs Lackersteen:

“U Po Kyin had touched Mrs Lackersteen’s weak spot. To her mind the words ‘sedition’, ‘Nationalism’, ‘rebellion’, ‘Home Rule’, conveyed one thing and one only, and that was a picture of herself being raped by a procession of jet-black coolies with rolling white eyeballs. It was a thought that kept her awake at night sometimes.”  (137-8)

To me the passage was funny because the description of her vividly imaginative fear revealed Mrs Lackersteen’s secret desire for the native other. So I turned to a friend who’d read the novel, pointed to the passage and said “You know she wants it.’ Unexpectedly, my friend didn’t get me, and replied with ‘That’s what rapists always say you know.’

Thinking back on the misunderstanding a few days later, I suddenly realised that in some sense it wasn’t really a misunderstanding at all. This is because after having read Ann Stoler’s ‘Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers’, where she talks more about who (European) women were designated the roles of ‘protectors’ of racial and ethnic morality, and a lot of them took it upon themselves. This is perhaps why in ‘A Passage To India’ it was said that the memsahibs behaved more racist than the sahibs.

If female sexuality (as Stoler says) was the means of policing and maintaining differences between the ethnic identities of the coloniser and colonised – and by extension, the former’s right to rule over the latter – the fact that ‘sedition’ and ‘Nationalism’ was interpreted as a danger to her sexuality is not that surprising anymore. In some sense, it is patriarchy that is to blame for Mrs Lackersteen’s fear, and thus in the same way that patriarchal dominance and misogyny is responsible for violence against women to this day, my joke – ‘you know she wants it’ – really reveals my own culpability with patriarchal ideology, despite my own professions to feminism. I am glad for this chance to self-examine that literature has provided.