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.
Orwell is very aware of the ambivalence of colonial discourse and the contradiction of Whiteness, especially with regard to aggression. He expresses his own ambivalence as a unit in the colonial machine, reaffirming the imperial ideology, while thinking that “imperialism was an evil thing”. When Orwell implies Whiteness, he speaks of it as a technicality, a system or ideology in ordering the world, similar to the systems inherent in pre-colonial states (India).
“A white man musn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives'”, and the worst that he fears is being mocked and laughed at. Laughter here becomes the only weapon at the natives’ disposal, yet it is so subversive that the entire machine of colonialism can be threatened by this act of derisiveness. After all, “every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at”(153). Power that propagates and fuels the system is not servility or obedience if it is understood and prefigured to be temporary. The power of the imperial mission seems to be predetermined as one that is inherently unstable by any ethical and rational code, unless explained away by the dismissal of the Asian subject as intrinsically flawed and incapable of self-rule [the mark of civility]. Laughter from derision and pity becomes something that is couched with subversive power to destabilitize and overthrow an established rationale behind a sketchy justification.
This reminded me of Cixous and her theory of laughter being something that inhabits a liminal space between the transgressive and subversive. In this context, it serves to stabilize the hierarchy between different social groups, but it is also transgressive since it discloses aggressive desires (anti-colonialism). I feel that the honesty of Orwell’s narrator-persona here allows for us to see how laughter ties to male pride, colonizer pride and even concepts of national pride. Laughter’s subversive quality and its role in the text highlights the modernist’s concern with the power of the mute and marked bodies of the colonized non-white masses that has the potential to far surpass the function of language (that is inherently empty and desperate for signification and meaning-making).