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Burmese Days

Within the scope of this research, we will elaborate on Orwell’s famous work Burmese Days, which has triggered a lot of controversial responses from the literary critics. George Orwell’s Burmese Days is based, of course, on his own experiences in the Burma Police in the years after he left Eton - that is in the early twenties. (Davison 1996) There can be no doubt that this experience played a great part in his life. His family had close connections with India; he was born in Bengal, where his father was an official in the Opium Department. One day an attempt will doubtless be made, coolly and objectively, to analyze the effect on the English of their association with India. It is a fascinating subject, and whoever undertakes dealing with it will have plenty of data in works of fiction, from Vanity Fair to Plain Tales from the Hills or A Passage to India. Burmese Days belongs essentially to this tradition. It is a study of the human factor in the British Raj. (Crick 1994)

“Burmese Days seems very heavy-handed”. (Boggs 1993) But the comparison is accidental and should not be made - Orwell has his own merits and his own methods and they are absolutely competent in their own class. His novel is the story of a man who, because born with an ugly birthmark flung in a blue ugliness across his cheek, is doomed to be a misfit. When we meet him he has been for years buried in Burma, and is already half-rotted there: then an English rosebud comes out to him and life shines again. He is by now, unfortunately, sunk so low as to be a reader of books, a Socialist, a disbeliever in the white-man’s burden, and a friend of the natives: and his only virtues in the eyes of the ‘Kipling-haunted Club, ’ where there is ‘whisky to the right of you and the Pink ’un to the left of you, ’ is that he drinks like a fish and keeps a native mistress. (Davison 1996) The bitter tone of the book will be apparent, and with a savagery that knows only a passing pity and eschews all reticence Orwell depicts the life of this misanthropic and unimpressive character. He gives incidentally so grim a picture of Burmese life that while one fervently hopes he has exaggerated, one feels that the outlines, at least, are true.

Considered simply as a novel, Burmese Days is not particularly satisfactory. Most of the characters are stock figures, and most of the dialogue is intended rather to present them as such than to reproduce actual conversation. The hero, Flory, is scarcely convincing, nor is the Deputy District Commissioner, Macgregor. Oddly enough, it is the villain, the fat, wicked, Burmese magistrate, U Po Sing, who best comes to life. In his portrayal there is real zest; his wickedness is presented with almost sensual delight, rather in the manner, though in a very different context, of Graham Greene.

The ordinarily-accepted view is that Orwell was deeply revolted by what was expected of him as a member of the Burma Police Force, and that his subsequent political views were to some extent a consequence of the great revulsion of feeling thereby induced in him. Some critics consider that this is an over-simplification. (Woodcock 1986) It is perfectly true that Orwell was revolted by the brutality necessarily involved in police duties in Burma, as he was revolted by all forms of brutality, and, indeed, to a certain extent, by authority as such; but it is also true that there was a Kiplingesque side to his character which made him romanticize the Raj and its mystique.

In this connection, it is significant that one of the most vivid descriptive passages in Burmese Days is of the hunting expedition that Flory went on with Elizabeth. Another is of the attack on a small handful of Englishmen in their club by an enraged Burmese mob. Flory was the hero of this occasion. He, with his defacing birthmark and unorthodox attitude towards the ‘natives’, saved the situation, whereas Verrall, ‘lieutenant the honourable’, polo player, handsome and insolent Sahib - a sort of Steerforth as in David Copperfield or Townley as in The Way of All Flesh - unaccountably failed to put in an appearance. (Davison 1996)

These two episodes are described with tremendous vividness, and alone give promise of the considerable writer Orwell was to become. Even Flory’s passion for Elizabeth, which has up to that point been difficult to believe in, comes to life when they are hunting together. Their hands meet by the warm carcase of a jungle cock—‘For a moment they knelt with their hands clasped together. The sun blazed upon them and the warmth breathed out of their bodies; they seemed to be floating upon clouds of heat and joy. ’ (Orwell 1998)

On the other hand, the description of the Europeans in their club, of their discussions about electing a ‘native’ to membership, their quarrels and their drunkenness and their outbursts of hysteria, is somehow unreal. It is, of course, perfectly true that the general attitude towards Indians was arrogant, and sometimes brutal, and that a European who did not share this attitude was liable, like Flory, to find himself in an embarrassing situation. On the other hand, it is equally true that Orwell’s picture is tremendously exaggerated, and even unreal—the sadistic outburst of Ellis, for instance:

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“If it pleases you to go to Murkhaswami’s house and drink whisky with all his nigger pals, that’s your look-out. Do what you like outside the Club. But by God, it’s a different matter when you talk of bringing niggers in here. I suppose you’d like little Murkhaswami for a Club member, eh? Chipping into our conversation and pawing everyone with his sweaty hands and breathing his filthy garlic breath in our faces. By God, he’d go out with my boot behind him if ever I saw his black snout inside that door. Greasy, pot-bellied little …!” (Orwell 1998)

The fact is, as some critics suggest, that a tremendous struggle went on inside Orwell between one side of his character, a sort of Brushwood Boy side, which made him admire the insolence and good looks of Verrall, and a deep intellectual disapprobation of everything Verrall stood for. (Davison 1996) Verrall is presented by Orwell as, in some ways, a far more admirable character than Flory, in whom there are, unquestionably, strong autobiographical elements. Verrall is what he is; but Flory is tormented by doubt, finds his secret solace in the companionship of Dr Murkhaswami, an Indian, and, at the same time, repeats to him gross remarks made at the club about ‘filthy niggers’, and feels bound to sign a defamatory notice about him in connection with a proposal that he should be admitted to the club. (Davison 1996)

The same conflict existed in Kipling, who, however, settled it by coming down very heavily on the Brushwood Boy side. Orwell settled it the other way, and came down heavily on the side of ‘anti-imperialism’. Yet, in both Kipling and Orwell the conflict really remained unresolved, leading Kipling to make the hero of his best book, Kim, a little English boy ‘gone native’, and Orwell to present Verrall and U Po Sing, the two extremes of European and native callousness, as the most effective, if not the most lovable, characters in Burmese Days. (Woodcock 1986)

Orwell had an immense admiration for Kipling as a writer, though of course he deplored much of the content of his writing. His long essay on Kipling is extremely interesting, and far from being wholly admirable. Orwell and Kipling had a great deal in common; one thing, incidentally, they indubitably had in common was that they found it easier to present animals than human beings in a sympathetic light; the Jungle Books and Animal Farm are cases in point. As Hugh Kingsmill remarked of Orwell, he tended only to write sympathetically about human beings when he regarded them as animals. (Davison 1996)

Burmese Days is not on any showing a great novel. It is, however, extremely readable and, in some of its descriptive passages, brilliant. The sense, if not the manner, of living in India is wonderfully conveyed - the boredom, the hatefulness, and, at the same time, the curious passionate glory of it. Anyone who believed that that was literally how Europeans lived in Burma before the country was ‘liberated’, and relapsed into its present squalor and chaos and misery, would be hopelessly mistaken. (Crick 1994) There is much more to be said for British rule than Orwell says; much more that was heroic even about those little remote philistine collections of English in up-country stations than he suggests. At the same time, Burmese Days has its own verisimilitude, but more in relation to Orwell than to India as such.

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Events have moved fast indeed since he wrote the book, and the pretentious clubs, which both U Po Sing and Dr Murkhaswami so passionately desired to be allowed to join, have already for the most part ceased to exist, or become the haunts of brown burra Sahibs not less concerned than their white predecessors to maintain their position of superiority. If the copies of The Tatler, The Illustrated London News, along with local equivalents, remain where they were, and are still turned over, the Ellises, the Latimers, the Macgregors, theWestfields, have either departed, or adjusted themselves to a position of obsequiousness to their new masters. (Davison 1996) Orwell was not quite sure how pleased he was about all this. In any case, it makes the scene of Burmese Days as much a period piece as Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii. (Davison 1996)

As a matter of criticism that is crucial with this type of book, the evidence is too good; it all hangs together too well-the sweat and the drink, the loneliness and the dry-rot, the birthmark and the misanthropy, the misanthropy and the anti-social ideas, the anti-social ideas and the ostracism. Poor Flory hasn’t a dog’s chance against his author. However, one advantage in weighted dice is that the game is secure, and if one does not perceive that Orwell is being too Olympian then the course of his hero’s life will seem natural and ineluctable as Fate, and one will say, ‘Yes, it rings true-it had to happen that way. ’ (Woodcock 1986)

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