Burmese Days

by George Orwell

Other authors,
Paperback, 1962

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Time Incorporated, c1962.

Description

A corrupt Burmese politician uses the powers of his office to win membership in a British club.

Media reviews

Not only is the book thick with information about Burma in the 1920s and Orwell’s lefting political thought in the ’30s but it’s a damn good read, simply as a story told. The leading man, Flory, a timber merchant in Upper Burma, who has resigned himself to gin before breakfast and a Burmese mistress, is smitten when a young Englishwoman. Elizabeth, appears at the Club, making an extended stay with her Aunt and lecherous Uncle. Flory inadvertently displays himself as a heroic man by rescuing the naive Miss Lackersteen from a cud chewing water buffalo. He seems to win her heart during a hunting expedition, and without ever discerning the inborn, and growing, colonialist racism in the young lady –which he himself, is mostly bereft of– commits his future happiness to marriage with her. An earthquake interrupts his proposal of marriage. A dashing young horse officer intervenes. Romance is kindled. A riot by villagers in response to the blinding of one of their youth by a Club member gives Flory a second chance to be a hero.
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Overall, Burmese Days is a thoroughly impressive piece of work which is a suspenseful, tragic and at times beautiful depiction of upper Burma. It marks a great contribution towards an artistic reflection of the issue of race (and more subtly in the text, gender) as well as providing insight into the corruption and immorality behind Anglo- Indian imperialism. An undeniable masterpiece.

User reviews

LibraryThing member John
The latest in my re-reading schedule. Having recently read J.G.Farrell and Paul Scott, I am getting a good dose of English colonialism in India and Asia, but neither is as in-your-face about it as Orwell, particularly in this very strongly anti-colonialism novel. This is a story about a group of characters in Kyauktada, in Upper Burma: a small group of Europeans and a couple of key native protagonists, most importantly U Po Kyin, a Sub-divisional Magistrate, and an evil, lecherous, conniving, murderous man, bent on destroying Dr.Verasawami, and if needs-be, Verasawmi's friend, an Englishman named Flory through a campaign of lies, slanders, and calumny. Flory is an unhappy man, disfigured by a large birthmark on his face, but most unhappy because he is the one European who can appreciate Burma and the Burmese people for their own culture and history and ways of living, but this puts him on a collision course with all the other Europeans who, to varying degrees, are vocal in their determination to keep the "niggers" in their places. Flory is not a strong character, but in the end he tries to right by his friend the Doctor in recommending him for membership in the Club, over the howling outrage of the other Europeans. Flory is smitten by Elizabeth, the visiting niece of one of the European couples. He imagines that she will come to share his appreciation and respect for the Burmese people, but she is repulsed by the thought, and does not respond to, nor appreciate, Flory's attempts to engage her in more "intellectual" discussions about books or art. She is attracted to a visiting British military police officer who is the essence of stupidity and banality, but who rides a good horse, is good looking, and loves polo. However, when he leaves town without even saying goodbye, Elizabeth resigns herself to marrying Flory, rather than stay with her aunt and uncle, the latter of whom is trying to rape her. Just as Flory's world comes to together in the bliss of anticipated partnership with Elizabeth, it all comes crashing down thanks to the machinations of U Po Kyin, and a soul-destroying scene by Flory's former Burmese mistress in the midst of the European church service. His world, and his hopes destroyed, Flory kills himself.

Orwell describes well the extremes of the Burmese climate: the stifling and suffocating heat followed by the torrential, but cooling rains, and the smothering fecundity of the jungle, as well as the crowded, boisterous, restless, treacherous, hard lives of the native Burmese. But he is at his best in his descriptions of the poisonous, hateful, British sahibs who see the natives as less than animals, never mind people. They have no redeeming qualities, and the fact that of the whole bunch the only one with a spark of decency, Flory, dies, accentuates Orwell's view that there is no hope for these people.

His novel also highlights the fact that one of the evils of this sort of imperialism and colonialism is the effect, not just on the subjugated people, but equally and tragically on the colonials themselves whose lives and minds are so blinkered, so shuttered, so narrow, so shallow, and so prejudiced, that it is impossible to think of them ever taking a different track. And the system sucks people in, plays to natural prejudices, and destroys those who might try to swim against the current. After Flory's death, Elizabeth ends up marrying an older man, one of the established Europeans in the town, and they are happy together, but whatever sparks of decency that might have existed in her make-up are lost in her complete conversion to the common herd of English colonials. Orwell ends the book thus:

Elizabeth has grown mature surprisingly quicky, and a certain hardness of manner that always belonged to her has become accentuated. Her servants live in terror of her, though she speaks no Burmese. She has an exhaustive knowledge of the Civil List, gives charming little dinner parties and knows how to put the wives of subordinate officials in their places–in short she fills with complete success the position for which Nature had designed her from the first, that of a burra memsahib.

For Orwell, there is no stronger epithet.
(Nov/99)
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LibraryThing member brenzi
”Time passed, and each year Flory found himself less at home in the world of the sahibs, more liable to get into trouble when he talked seriously on any subject whatever. So he had learned to live inwardly, secretly, in books and secret thoughts that could not be uttered. Even his talks with the doctor were kind of talking to himself; for the doctor, a good man, understood little of what was said to him. But it is a corrupting thing to live one’s real life in secret. One should live with the stream of life, not against it.” (Page 78)

This was Orwell’s first novel although that wasn’t apparent to me. While it didn’t have any of the otherworldly elements of his most well-known works, it was very well written and very enjoyable and at the same time maddening, as it contained all the elements usually found in works that attempt to describe life under British imperialism in India and, in this case, 1920s Burma where Orwell was stationed. He drew from his experiences to write this novel.

The bleakness that is evident in his dystopian novels is evident here as well. The blatant racism is shocking but apparently very common among those English stationed in the colonies at the time. There are no holds barred so be prepared for deplorable language in describing how the English spoke of and treated the natives.

John Flory is the exception. He’s never gone home in the fifteen or so years that he’s been stationed here, working for a lumber company. He enjoys the land and its people and his outspokenness, especially at the English club gets him in constant frays with the rest of the English. His closest friend is a native doctor. Flory is a vehicle for Orwell to express his disdain for the English Imperialism in its dying days. Flory’s loneliness and hopelessness seems about to be assuaged when a niece of one of the other Englishmen comes to live with him and Flory hopes for someone to talk to and share some of his life with. He makes feeble attempts to convince her of the wonderful qualities of Burmese life but she is a stalwart racist who can’t tolerate the native population. You know this relationship isn’t going to work and poor Flory is going to lose out in the end. And of course, he does.

I’ve read quite a few books about the British colonialism in the East but this book I have to say, is the most brutal depiction of life in the east. I still need to read [A Passage to India] which may offer a different perspective but I doubt it. This was quite brilliant. I’ll read more of Orwell’s early works.… (more)
LibraryThing member whiteriot
A fantastic first novel. A critique of imperialism, a romantic tragedy and all based on real experience not academic research.
LibraryThing member dougwood57
'Burmese Days', George Orwell's first novel, was based on his five years' experience as a member of the British Indian Imperial military police in Burma, which was part of British India at the time (1922-27) and remained so until 1937. Orwell was born in Bengal British India where his father worked for the Opium Department of the Civil Service.

Orwell sets his rather sordid tale in a remote station of Kyauktada in Upper Burma.

Through Orwell's considerable literary skills the reader feels the heat and rains: "...from February through May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one's clothes, one's bed, nor even one's food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy vaporous heat. The jungle paths turned to morasses, and the paddy fields were great wastes of stagnant water with a stale mousy smell...Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain."

Fictional Kyauktada station consists of eight whites in the midst of thousands of Burmese. Eight whites holding on to their cribbed vision of civilization with a social life centered around a cheap whites-only club and the once-every-six-weeks visit of the Anglican priest. Although he changed the names, Orwell's characters were based on real people he encountered. The corrosive affect of colonial rule takes a toll on everyone involved, British and Burmese alike. The Anglo Indians generally display racist attitudes that ranged from an accepted sense of one's own 'natural' superiority to raging hate. The Burmese are nearly as repugnant as they scrape and bow to curry favor with grater and lesser degrees of sincerity. The protagonist Flory is the only partial exception, but his maddening equivocation ultimately leads to dire results. Several of the British sink into booze to put away the malaise.

Orwell had difficulty getting 'Burmese Days' published partially out of fear that it would anger supporters of the British Empire (especially Anglo Indians) and also fear of libel suits. After reading Burmese Days you will agree that these reactions would not have been surprising. No one comes off looking very good, British or Burmese, but least of all the British Empire. Was it really as bad as Orwell portrays? Perhaps it was, after all Kyauktada was far from a plum assignment. In any event Orwell's `Burmese Days' portrayal is closer to the mark than any romanticized renderings.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the Asian subcontinent.
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LibraryThing member Crazymamie
I read this book after reading [Finding George Orwell in Burma]. I was curious about it, and if you want the ending to be a surprise, you should really read [Burmese Days] before reading Emma Larkin's memoir about retracing Orwell's life in Burma while he was stationed there. [Burmese Days] was Orwell's first novel, and you can tell that he wrote it after being witness to the effects of colonialism first hand. If it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, its because it's supposed to. Imperialism and colonialism aren't pretty and neither are the characters in this book, many of whom it is impossible to like. That it was Orwell's first novel shows, I think, but still, it is compelling and in the writing we see brief moments of what Orwell will achieve in later works.

"The real work of administration is done mainly by native subordinates; and the real backbone of the despotism is not the officials but the Army....It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself."
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
An early one of Orwell's, and appealingly self-contained in that interwar British realist way - no formal experimentation, no pretensions to metaphysics or universality or prognostication, just a story told straight, where you feel for the characters and learn a thing or two about Burma and get a bit of catharsis and that's that. I don't know whether his politics just weren't that developed yet, but he seems a tad overawed by the quality of the British race at times - describing Verrall or even Flory, he seems to slip from trying to evoke the godlike impression they make on the Burmese (the villain of the piece, U Po Kyin, being an exception) to expressing in aaaalmost an authorial voice the idea of their superiority - physical and mental if not moral. But hell, the footsoldiers of Empire must have been impressive in their day. Also, the bits with Elizabeth Lackersteen are a bit flat and tinged with melodrama at times, but Orwell always did have a public-schoolboy's awkwardness with making his female characters more than ciphers, didn't he?… (more)
LibraryThing member john257hopper
An interesting and in many places rather distasteful picture of life in Burma under British rule. Most of the characters of all races and nationalities are rather unpleasant, with the exceptions of the central character Flory, who strives to be decent but is trapped in a lifestyle he cannot escape from, the Indian doctor Veraswami, with his basic humanity and unshakable faith in the British and, to some extent, the Deputy Commissioner Macgregor, who tries to preserve a certain decency and justice without challenging the system. Particularly horrible are the flagrantly racist Ellis, and the horrible Burmese manipulator U Po Kyin, though the behaviour of the cold-hearted Elizabeth Lackersteen and the military officer Verrall are also unpleasant. Not one of Orwell's better known works, but well worth reading. Finally, this could have done with a glossary to explain the large number of Burmese and Indian terms used.… (more)
LibraryThing member belgrade18
Brilliantly written story about British colonial Burma. It was Orwell's first novel, and nearly as much a dystopia as 1984. A bit slow at times, with very few likable characters. Great insight into the British colonial culture and mindset. Highly recommended for those interested in 20th-century Asia as well.
LibraryThing member williamcostiganjr
This is a very good novel. The characters are engaging, the story is interesting, and Orwell's telling is excellent.

Orwell describes the little nastinesses of the everyday life his protagonist, Flory, leads with such vividness that it creeps up on you; the atmosphere has become pervasive, and the reader feels frantic that Flory get some relief from this repulsive existence. An Englishwoman arrives in the town, possibly bringing Flory salvation, but his courtship does not prove that easy...

Really a cool read
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LibraryThing member CarltonC
I was disappointed by this, as although I found the book very informative about Burma between the wars - the tedium, hypocrisy and petty mindedness of the English ruling class - it has little narrative charm and is utterly predictable.
I only struggled to finish it as I have read and admired Orwell's non-fiction, which can be brilliant.… (more)
LibraryThing member buzzharper
I love southeast asia. Captures the feel. Read in early summer Florida.
LibraryThing member mysteena
I enjoyed this book, it was my first glimpse into life in India under British rule. I read it for Chris, who was suppose to read it for a class he was taking at the time. He wrote his book review based on what I told him about the book :)
LibraryThing member timspalding
I also read this for a history class, but I don't think it's such a bad novel. Distressing as all get-out, mind you.
LibraryThing member br77rino
Written in 1934, this is a work of fiction in which the main character is a Brit working in Burma for a timber company. Flory is a man with a terrible birthmark on his face, and lines himself up more with the "savages" than his fellow Europeans in the small village he calls home. Spineless and cowardly, however, he's not of much use to them. Great as a description of the time and place for whites in greater India, the jewel of the British Empire at the time.… (more)
LibraryThing member mrminjares
Orwell's first attempt at a novel .. and not a very good one. His characters are not very compelling and his writing is overly flowery. This simply isn't his style. Orwell lived in Burma and surely Flory the protagonist is a semi-autobiographical character. There are great passages here about political suppression, particularly in the British club, where Flory feels stifled by its rules. Again, some foreshadowing here of Orwell's future concern with dictatorial regimes.… (more)
LibraryThing member julsitos2
This has to be the most scathing commentary on British colonial life where everone is abusive and prejudiced as hell. My hats to Orwell who saw the harsh realities of colonial life without pandering to the British authorities during that time.
LibraryThing member sa54d
Who cries over dead Englishmen? This novel made me think about about the sort of people who lives in "the colonies" prior to the independencem movements of the mid-20th century. The way that unimportant people make themselves important in a new context: a new land. The natives fullfil the role that the colonist did back in his own country. Inferiority is their job and they had better be good at it. Orwell shows how some native people in the developing world at that time (and even now, by the way) look up to nearly anyone from a developed country. But the colonists carry out their social hierarchy and their vicious in-fighting without regard to the effect they have on the rest of the world. After you read this book, think about which characters cried over the death of Englishmen.… (more)
LibraryThing member PortiaLong
I made it though 174 pages and failed to find a character I cared about or a plot-line that aroused my curiousity.
LibraryThing member DRFP
Well this was a thoroughly depressing read. Regardless, Orwell's first novel is a decent offering that takes a while to get going, even if the book is not excessively overwritten. The pacing of the novel is merely uneven. Events unfold very slowly during the first third and gradually come faster until the almost sudden conclusion.

Everything is quite standard here. A plot and cast that are interesting enough to keep you reading but neither of which forcefully grips. Perhaps if both hadn't been quite so nasty this wouldn't have been a problem. It goes without saying that Orwell's social and imperial criticism is particularly admirable, although that isn't enough to make this novel as good as the likes of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
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LibraryThing member mysteena
I enjoyed this book, it was my first glimpse into life in India under British rule. I read it for Chris, who was suppose to read it for a class he was taking at the time. He wrote his book review based on what I told him about the book :)
LibraryThing member schmicker
I spent some time in Asia, and Orwell captured the feeling so well.
LibraryThing member leslie.98
Interesting but somewhat depressing look at British colonial life in the 1920s. Very few of the characters are sympathetic and even Flory, whom I found the most congenial, had his flaws. I was a bit taken by surprise by the way the Brits lumped Burma in with India and called the native Burmese blacks... Orwell clearly despised the prevailing racism and arrogance of these white colonials but the ending of the book seems to indicate a feeling of helplessness about the possibility of change.… (more)
LibraryThing member DinadansFriend
George Orwell had quite an interesting life, and this was his first novel relating to his experience in the police force set up by the British when they held Burma. It outlines the interactions in a community when the actual power of life and death is held outside that group. He shows how the process of colonialism infantilized the community and leads to quite serious levels of cruelty as the colonizer is there to blame, reducing local responsibility. even well intentioned limbs of the Imperial government can be quite helpless in the face of someone who knows how to work the system. Chilling.… (more)
LibraryThing member eglinton
The Empire, the generations of British rule over vast territories and peoples, then as now perceived by those peoples as fundamentally iniquitous, remains largely unexamined in the consciousness, and indeed the conscience, of the British themselves. So this easily overlooked first novel from George Orwell, based on his experiences as an imperial official in small outposts in 1920s Burma, and taking a critical, at times cynical line on any redeeming mission, is welcome, and ought still to feel controversial. Although a first novel, it holds together well, with credible characters and plot. Orwell’s characteristic style and content are already evident - the sententiousness, the plain speaking, the novel similes, the disdain for the hypocrisies of his fellow Britons and their own obliviousness to them. Less familiar from his later works is the numerous, rather heady description of sights, smells, colours of the East. The flowers and plants, the various peoples and the heat are all carefully referenced.… (more)
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Captures an era almost rapturously, and it also captures a lot of what it's like to live in a foreign country - especially in one where there is such a clear class difference between the expatriate and the native. The heat/weather is a constant presence – muted, but ever-present; suggest you also check out Koch's _Year of Living Dangerously_, Bowles' _The Sheltering Sky_, and Burdett's _Bangkok 8_. The main characters all seem to drip [with sweat] in a similar way...… (more)

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