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Literature / Burmese Days

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Burmese Days, first published in 1934, was George Orwell's first novel, inspired by the five years he (under his real name, Eric Arthur Blair) spent in the then British colony of Burma (aka Myanmar) as a member of the Indian Imperial Police, in the days when Burma was ruled as the easternmost province of The Raj.

Once upon a time in 1926, in the stifling, lonely, tropical backwaters of British-controlled Burma, intrigue is slowly brewing. In the small rural outpost of Kyauktada, the corrupt native magistrate U Po Kyin has shifted his predatory mind into high gear, plotting against the Indian Dr Veraswami, the community doctor and surgeon. News has it that the local European Club, heretofore exclusive to Europeans in their unassailable bigoted logic, is finally opening membership to nonwhites and natives, and Dr Veraswami stands a good chance of being elected due to his close friendship with English timber merchant, John Flory. To that end, U Po Kyin begins a covert smear campaign to devastate the good doctor's reputation, chiefly by accusing Dr Veraswami of sedition and disloyalty to the Empire, as well as by getting in between his and Flory's friendship.

Meanwhile, Flory has become thoroughly jaded and fed up after almost fifteen years in the sticks, even as at the same time he has adapted to the local climate and come to appreciate far more about local cultures and customs than any of his white compatriots likely ever will. Still, his health is shot, he has no other friends, and the ragged birthmark on his face has subjected him to constant ridicule or ostracism from almost all quarters. Other than his tiny local mistress, Ma Hla May, he has not known the genuine affections of a woman, and so understandably Flory gets his hopes up when Elizabeth Lackersteen, the niece of a drunkard Club acquaintance of his, rolls into Burma in general (and Kyauktada in particular) looking for a potential husband.

Together the two friends begin scraping at means to escape their horrid, prison-like lives: Dr Veraswami to win acceptance to the Club, and Flory to marry Elizabeth, return to England, and settle down with a family.

But this is Burma, of course, and the ways of the Empire are greedy, brutal, hypocritical and unchanging. And between the intractable racist logic of the European Club on the one hand, and the ambitious machinations of U Po Kyin on the other, our heroes will soon find that the Empire will not change for them, and that it would be exceedingly useless to stand in opposition …

Tropes included in Burmese Days:

  • 100% Heroism Rating: After Flory saves the European Club from a Burmese lynch mob, the other Europeans all see him as a hero and are willing to forgive his past faux pas … at least until, of course, U Po Kyin ruins Flory's reputation again.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Katha, the Upper Burmese town where Eric Blair was last posted, serves as the primary inspiration for Kyauktada, but Katha itself appears to have been much more progressive (at the time of the author's service there, the local European Club had already admitted several natives, Indians and Burmese alike, including the native-Burmese town chief; in fact Blair was the only white man of any significance there).
  • The Alcoholic: Mr Lackersteen, Elizabeth's uncle, always with some bottle in hand, especially when his wife isn't around.
  • Ambition Is Evil: U Po Kyin. His rise to power is laid out in detail in the very first chapter, which functions as an entire Establishing Character Moment for him. In childhood he felt terrified and awed by the British colonization of Burma; this convinces him that the only way he'll succeed in colonial society is to become a leech upon the ruling dispensation, and he quickly learns to take advantage of loopholes built into the power structure. At the age of 20 he hustles enough money via blackmail to buy his way into a civil service posting. By the time of the novel, he is 56 years old, and awaiting his biggest ambition yet—to be elected to Kyauktada's European Club, as its first native member.
  • Animal Motifs: Dr Veraswami often likens U Po Kyin to a crocodile, because a) he's got a great many tiny teeth and b) "he always strikes at the weakest spot".
  • Asian and Nerdy: U Po Kyin, sort of. Considering the limited opportunities for education and advancement in colonial Burma he proves very competent at navigating the corridors of power in this part of The Raj, and he's a master manipulator who amasses a huge latitude of local influence over his career of 30+ years. He's also scarily perceptive of human nature, particularly that of the British colonials, which is how he's able to play on their weaknesses, not to mention those of locals and fellow Asians like Dr Veraswami.
  • Asian Babymama: The Burmese Patriot editorial alleges that Mr Macgregor has left several of these in each district he's been posted to. U Po Kyin marks it as libellous and decides to jail the editor for it. Also, implicitly, the unseen Asian mothers of Eurasian residents Mr Francis and Mr Samuel.
  • Asian Hooker Stereotype: Ma Hla May, a sort of Ur-Example before American wars in the Asia-Pacific region popularised the trope. She isn't actually a hooker, though. Although in the end, after she was ostracized by basically everyone in town and is no longer considered suitable to be a wife, she goes to work for a brothel elsewhere.
  • Author Avatar: Flory is this to Orwell himself.
  • Author Tract: Imperialism is bad—even for the imperialists, because whatever genuine sympathies any white colonial might have for the natives by necessity has to be repressed or subordinated to the vast, moneymaking and power-hungry imperial machine.
  • Authority in Name Only: Rather played with. On the one hand, the narrator frequently makes it clear that the Empire is the ultimate source of despotism in places like Burma, and so even native civil servants like Dr Veraswami and native magistrates like U Po Kyin can only do so much—but on the other hand, what little spelled-out authority U Po Kyin has to work with, he uses—and abuses—for all it's worth, even to the point of manipulating pukka sahibs and other Europeans considered higher in status than him (the ultimate example of this of course is ruining Flory's life, although Flory himself doesn't hold any high office in the Empire). Indeed a large part of why the Empire even functions is because millions of native collaborators loyally keep it running, as Dr Veraswami unironically points out.
  • Bargain with Heaven: U Po Kyin plans on commissioning the construction of pagodas to balance out the negative karma he built up by a lifetime of sin so as to avoid paying for them. He dies before he can build them, and his wife fears that he went to Hell.
  • Berserk Button: Merely being in the same room as a native is enough to light the hyperracist Ellis' nerves on fire. And this is a man whose nerves are constantly on fire to begin with.
  • Big Fun: Macgregor tries to keep up this image within the European Club, but like everything else of a positive nature in Burma, it ultimately feels forced and shallow.
  • Bollywood Nerd: Dr Veraswami, whose position as Civil Surgeon in Kyauktada predates decades of "model minority" stereotypes in the West and "family-preferred career" stereotypes in the East. But that's not all, since the good doctor also keeps a small library of essays and intellectual discourses in his home, books which he likes to have a "moral meaning". He quotes William Shakespeare at one point and name-drops historical English statesmen on another. He's even described as having metal-rimmed glasses.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Both Flory and Dr Veraswami. Flory has a fairly dim view of the Empire and its purpose in India, invariably scoffing at the hypocritical claims of conducting a "civilising mission" towards the natives. He often takes the native side in debates with Dr Veraswami, who in his turn believes the backwards image of Indian (and Burmese, and general Oriental) culture/s as seen through racist and colonialist lenses.
  • Catchphrase: Westfield's listless Shakespearean repetition: "Lead on, Macduff".
  • Creepy Uncle: Mr Lackersteen becomes this, sexually harassing his niece Elizabeth and even attempting to rape her at one point.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: After Flory saves the European Club from a Burmese lynch mob he becomes a hero to the other Europeans; his reputation among the other Europeans is at it's apex, they're receptive to letting Dr Veraswami into the club due to his own bravery against the riot and his friendship with Flory, and Elizabeth sees Flory as her heroic savoir again. Then Ma Hla May humiliates Flory in church in front of the other Europeans, Elizabeth hates him again and would rather be a spinster than marry Flory, and Flory takes his own life in despair.
  • Downer Ending: Flory kills himself. Dr Veraswami consequently loses his only defender in the European Club, and U Po Kyin makes short work of discrediting the doctor so thoroughly that he's demoted and transferred to a Mandalay hospital where he can't get the same fix of intellectual discourse that drinking with Flory once provided. Ko S'la and Ba Pe, Flory's servants, are forced to find work in increasingly menial and dissatisfying jobs (and one of the children in their extended family eventually dies of illness).
  • Dirty Old Man: Mr Lackersteen sleeps with Burmese prostitutes (and even attempts rape on his own niece) whenever his wife isn't around, the Burmese Patriot editorial alleges that Mr Macgregor did the same, and U Po Kyin regularly rapes village girls despite being in his fifties. Even in Elizabeth's backstory she was borderline-molested in Paris by a middle-aged bank manager whose children she was teaching English—often he did this in front of the children themselves.
  • Driven to Suicide: Flory, after his chances with Elizabeth are totally shot.
  • Ethnic Menial Labor: Expected for a British colonial outpost; the European Club servants, for one, and Flory's own Burmese servants for another. Technically Dr Veraswami's own assistants count as this given he's Indian and they're Burmese natives.
  • Evil Brit: Sans Flory and perhaps Mr Macgregor (and even Flory can occasionally snap at his servants and in particular at Ma Hla May when she annoys him), the rest of the European Club (the ultra-racist Ellis in particular) are this to varying degrees toward natives and all other nonwhites in Burma. Natural given their role as …
  • Evil Colonialist: The European pukka sahibs, of course. They're greedy, racist, abusive to their servants and brutal at putting down local riots … It's not like it was unexpected in a novel like this.
  • Fantasy World Map: It's not a fantasy novel, but Orwell drew up a map of Kyauktada anyway, available for viewing at least in some editions. It's a basic sketch-map depicting landmarks and roads, so is not to scale, and doesn't even have an orientation.
  • Fat and Skinny: Respectively, Ma Yi and Ma Pu, Ko S'la's wives.
  • Fat Bastard: U Po Kyin is so enormously fat—like a villainous laughing Buddha—that he even needs assistance to stand up. In his defence, however, Orwell describes his fatness in a relatively positive light—noting that Asians, if and when they do grow fat, do so "symmetrically", like fruits or balloons, unlike white people who sag and look repulsive in their fatness.
  • Fat, Sweaty Southerner in a White Suit: Surprisingly, though Burma is different in almost every way from the American Deep South except perhaps in climate, U Po Kyin fits many of the personality markers for this trope—primarily, gluttonous and domineering.
  • Feeling Oppressed by Their Existence: Most of the European characters here are a least a bit racist (and often much more than a little racist) against the novel's Asian characters: native Burmese, Indians, even half-European children born of wedlock. Ellis is just the most stridently oppressed by these Asians' very existence but the Club's other Europeans will make no secret of their own disdain, such as with Elizabeth Lackersteen and her aunt, with whom the racism combines with a general classist snobbery with which they disdain even lower-class Englishmen back home.
  • Foreshadowing: When Elizabeth first comes to the European Club, she is the only person willing to listen to Mr Macgregor's tedious stories. After Lieutenant Verrall leaves and Flory dies, Macgregor marries Elizabeth.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: In contrast to Flory (see entry under Boomerang Bigot), Dr Veraswami has this bad for the British. In his discussions with Flory he always defends the Empire and the White Man's Burden.
  • Going Native: Flory. To say that fifteen years in Burma have been unkind to him is a gross understatement. He eventually comes to accept and even appreciate parts of the local culture though—something that does not sit well with his classically haughty and racist compatriots, as evidenced by Elizabeth, for example, who can't grasp how Flory can see the beauty in local dances and cosmetic alterations (e.g., neck-elongation by wearing multiple chokers, or the Chinese practice of foot-binding, even if it's already going out of style even then).
  • Grew a Spine: Flory. He started out too weak willed to stand up for Dr Veraswami even when doing so would have been easy, but by the midpoint in the story he recommended this friend to be the European Club's first native member even when doing so greatly hurts his reputation.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Ellis. You do NOT want to be within a ten-mile radius of him if your skin is darker than his. And possibly a much larger radius if he gets his hands on a rifle.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Kyauktada has two resident Eurasians: Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, sons of Baptist and Catholic missionaries respectively. In general the rest of the colonial community (sans Flory) dislikes them nearly as much as they do the rest of the natives.
  • Hate Sink: Ellis is perhaps the nadir of Kyauktada's generally prejudiced community of European colonials. Even when he isn't spewing racist tirades his general attitude is viciously disagreeable and spiteful, even mudslinging at white Englishwomen like Elizabeth and thriving at any opportunity to spread or dwell on malicious gossip in general.
  • Heat Wave: This being the tropics, in the days before electric fans or air-conditioning, it comes as absolutely no surprise that this is Burma's default state—that is, when it isn't torrentially pouring.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: At one point, while trying to get her niece Elizabeth to marry Lieutenant Verrall, Mrs Lackersteen decides to let her husband go to another post alone (because Elizabeth can't stay without a chaperone). This isn't an easy decision, because Mrs Lackersteen knows her husband will drink and cheat on her as soon as he's out of sight.
  • Henpecked Husband: Mr Lackersteen, largely a function of his being The Alcoholic (see above), is constantly striving to hide his bottles from his wife.
  • Holiday in Cambodia: Burma, in this case, is presented as a tropical hellhole, at least for the more prejudiced European colonials who can't stomach local climate, culture, and customs. Flory at least is more appreciative.
  • In Love with Love: Flory's affection for Elizabeth can be seen as this. He doesn't know her that well, and they aren't all that compatible, but he thinks if he marries her he can have a happy life again.
  • Insane Troll Logic: As pointed out by an Orwell biographer, when Verrall kicks the Club butler, Ellis viciously chews him out on it … but not because of any moral qualms that kicking native staff might be inherently wrong, oh no. In fact, they're arguing over who has the right to kick around Club servants; Ellis maintains only the Club can do it, Verrall feels like kicking anyone who pisses him off. Indeed Ellis hates more the possibility of Verrall assuming he has any sympathy for natives.
  • It Tastes Like Feet: Elizabeth complains once that a local green tea "tastes exactly like earth". Later she tries a yellow sherbet that turns out to taste like hair-oil.
  • Jabba Table Manners: U Po Kyin is absolutely barbaric at the breakfast table, as shown in the first chapter when he pigs out on a huge array of curries, prawns and green mangoes.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Elizabeth's reasons for rejecting Flory aren't very sympathetic (she dislikes that he's intellectual, that he says anything good about the Burmese, and that he slept with a Burmese woman), but when she rejects his marriage proposal she rightly points out that she never promised Flory her hand, that she doesn't owe him anything, and that Flory doesn't know her that well.
  • Karmic Death: U Po Kyin's planned Bargain with Heaven doesn't prevent him from dying right after he gets into the European Club and even formally commended by the colonial government. His widow fears his sins caught up with him anyway and he either went to hell or will be reincarnated as mere vermin.
  • Last-Name Basis: Most of the European characters in the novel are referred to, in the narrative and by each other, only by their surnames: Flory (though once he introduces himself as John), Macgregor, Westfield, Ellis, Maxwell, and Verrall, though one scene that involves a petition gives them each initials. The Lackersteens are an exception because there's three of them (not to mention Elizabeth's late parents, as detailed in her backstory), and so Elizabeth's uncle is sometimes referred to by his first name, Tom. Even his wife, her aunt, is never given a first name.
  • Last-Second Word Swap: Ellis at one point almost says out loud that Macgregor's proposal to allow natives into the Club is "absolute balls", but with Mrs Lackersteen in the room, he at least shows a tiny bit of restraint and changes it to "absolutely uncalled for".
  • Malicious Slander: How U Po Kyin decides to destroy Dr Veraswami's local reputation—by alleging that the latter has seditious and anti-imperialist sentiments. Not to mention the Burmese Patriot's libellous accusation of Macgregor as leaving Asian Babymamas in his previous postingsnote .
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: White Englishman Flory with native-Burmese Ma Hla May (and Flory's prior dalliance in 1913 with Eurasian girl Rosa McFee, mentioned in passing—and, of course, Rosa's own parents), as well as the parents of both-biracial Mr Francis and Mr Samuel.
  • Motor Mouth: Mr Francis, the mixed-race son of an American Baptist missionary and a South Indian local, will jump at any opportunity to ramble in rapid-fire about his life history. It's what turns Elizabeth off when she and Flory meet him briefly. Though Flory himself can be quite a chatterbox about Burmese culture and customs—often to Elizabeth's chagrin; she would rather have him be a chatterbox about inane, anti-intellectual, and "quintessentially English" subjects like dogs, hunting, shooting, etc.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Kyauktada is primarily based on the Upper Burmese town of Katha, Orwell's last posting.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Most of the Europeans, of course, but the incredibly repulsive Ellis wins by many, many miles, spouting racist profanities that would put Adolf Hitler, H. P. Lovecraft, the KKK, Donald Trump and Moon Man combined to shame.
  • Purple Prose: In stark contrast to Orwell's later writing style, there are long and lavish descriptions of Burmese settings and communities, even though the overall tone of the novel is rather disagreeable about actually living in Burma.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: It is mentioned several times that U Po Kyin occasionally uses his power to rape girls from the surrounding villages.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare:
  • Smart People Know Latin: Macgregor throws in the occasional "Latin tags" in his speech, though it's doubtful how much of it he actually knows (apart from possible required units back in school). It's more likely one of those semi-conscious "just to look smart" reflexes.
  • Social Climber: Elizabeth's personality is this for all it's worth. Everything she ever considers good (or in her terms, "lovely") is tied to the habits of the upper classes: ponies, dog shows, hunting and shooting, officer husbands, etc. etc., and everything she considers bad (or to use her terms, "beastly") has to do with the working classes (and foreigners), like her squalid couple of years in Paris prior to Burma. Blame her two terms in a very expensive and exclusive girls' school where her late—and financially incompetent—parents put her before they went insolvent.
  • Sssssnaketalk: Dr Veraswami sibilates his S's slightly. It's not meant to characterise him as being like a snake, but is treated as a natural function of his accent.
  • Suburbia: Not directly, but discussed by Flory with Dr Veraswami, as a future scenario of what should happen to Burma when all the trees are cut down. Mind, this was also decades before the idea of Suburbia became the standard in American residential planning.
    'Sometimes I think that in two hundred years all this—' he [Flory] waved a foot towards the horizon—'all this will be gone—forests, villages, monasteries, pagodas all vanished. And instead, pink villas fifty yards apart; all over those hills, as far as you can see, villa after villa, with all the gramophones playing the same tune.'
  • Suicide is Shameful: When Dr Veraswami finds Flory's corpse, he falsely reports that Flory shot himself on accident in order to defy this trope.
  • Took a Level in Badass: When a large mob of Burmese gathered outside the European Club to lynch Ellis, all the Europeans are afraid for their life and can't call the police because the mob cut the telegraph lines. So Flory runs to the river, swims across, and makes it to the police station to rally the officers to stare off the rioters.
  • '20s Bob Haircut: Elizabeth Lackersteen is described as having cut her hair into an Eton crop.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The plot and characterisations are almost certainly fictional, but several names and places were taken from Real Life sources. U Po Kyin, for example, gets his name from a native colleague of Eric Blair's in the Indian Imperial Police, but that is about where the similarity ends, for surviving photographs show the real U Po Kyin to be an Indian-looking man of average build, not the fat, sinister official of the novel.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The last chapter details, post-Flory's-suicide, the fates of several characters. The servants Ko S'la and Ba Pe (and their families) search for new work but each job they get is less satisfying than the last; Dr Veraswami gets demoted and transferred, and wastes out his days trying to chat intellectually with the third-rate Englishman at the third-rate European Club he ends up in; and U Po Kyin, despite winning acceptance to the European Club and a Government recognition for his services, dies suddenly before completing his atonement pagodas, among others. Elizabeth Lackersteen has it better, though—Macgregor proposes to her, and she matures into a bossy memsahib, eventually to become the torment of all her native servants.
  • White Man's Burden: Subverted, as the European colonials aren't even trying to pretend to civilise the natives. At least Flory tries calling them out on that, at least in his discussions with Dr Veraswami.
  • Woman Scorned: Ma Hla May, Flory's mistress of two years for whom he paid all expenses (she actually considered herself to be his unofficial wife) before him meeting Elizabeth, telling her he wants nothing to do with her, and throwing her out of his house. Then she repeatedly blackmails him and conspires with U Po Kyin to ruin his reputation.

You may be scared
Of the Thought Police
But they ain't got shit
On the pukka sahibs
Burmese Days