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).

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.