BOOK REVIEW: Burmese Days by George Orwell

Burmese Days, by George Orwell, was first published in 1934.

The novel is a prime example of white privilege: George Orwell’s position in British society was not endangered by his race nor gender, yet Burmese Days looks at the imperialist reign of the Empire through a cynical lens. Orwell provides readers with a sympathetic portrayal of some ‘native’ characters; dissecting the attitude of those (for example, Dr Veraswami) eager to assimilate into ‘white values’ whilst simultaneously observing the conflicted role of the coloniser (as evidenced in protagonist Flory).

Flory’s British comrades are entitled, egotistical individuals who sneer at the local community. Aside from the fetishised exoticism of women, there is little regard for language or cultural customs. There’s primarily an agenda to erase the culture of the Burmese and to replace this with British ideals. In contrast, though Flory is an agent in this scheme, he ultimately struggles to straddle British values and the Burmese culture in which he is immersed, bringing to the forefront issues of identity and belonging.

Orwell highlights the problematic power dichotomy enforced by the Empire, particularly in portraying the general admiration and fear from the Burmese themselves. Flory unwittingly charms a Burmese woman goes on to harbour a dangerous obsession: she clings to the notion of eventual marriage, a.k.a a means to escaping her impoverished background and otherwise lowly prospects. The public declaration of affiliation with a white man is perceived as the ultimate ticket out.

The novel provokes a sense of discomfort in the reader, some parts of the narrative are shocking in that Orwell’s depiction of the colonisers as openly elitist and oppressive men is far from subtle. An example of this dichotomy occurs very early in the text within dialogue shared between Ellis and his hired help. Upon hearing his butler speak in articulate English, Ellis reprimands him:

‘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.’ (p. 23)

Ellis owns his servants. Ellis dictates his servant’s voice. Ellis does not want to see a Burmese man, who is explicitly described as his inferior, excel.

The shocking nature of this critical novel makes it an exemplary work both for its audacity at the time of publication, but more-so for its relevance now. Campaign slogans at the heart of the election for presidency in the USA and in the lead up to the UK’s Brexit decision saw the emphasis on ‘Making Britain/America great again’, political leaders projecting plans to tighten up on immigration policies.

The term ‘great’ could connote many things, yet for ethnic minorities and immigrants who have cemented their lives in the West, even after offering invaluable contributions to society, there is still the threat of persecution. There is claim that we exist in a multi-cultural West and yet integration is problematic. The tensions which simmered beneath the surface are now blatantly transparent: this surrealist political nightmare has led to a significant rise in hate-crimes and the segregation within our ‘multi-cultural societies’ being exposed as a result of the verdicts delivered.

I feel that Burmese Days could be a vital tool in reinventing attitudes, a useful means of understanding from the perspective of the ‘other’.

Youths are malleable and the voices of the future, it is imperative that they’re equipped to more than just co-exist with their peers, that they could consider the perspectives of the ‘other’ away from the bias attitudes encouraged at home or in the media. Finding ways to draw upon Burmese Days could potentially challenge intolerant views before they become rigid principles and deconstructing the novel would encourage discussion about the key societal anxieties embedded within its core.

Offering high school students the opportunity to create a dialogue about this novel and its profound themes could result in powerful and cathartic dialogues. It’s time for major reform in the British school curriculum!

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