The Orientalism in Burmese Days
George Orwell had been a police official in Burma for five years, so he witnessed the real life in Burma and the rigorous management of Britain. However, he gave up this high-paying job because he opposed British colonization and racial discrimination. Afterwards, he wrote the novel Burmese Days to satirize the British colonial domination and imperialism. In the story, Orwell shapes a character named Flory, who is obsessed with oriental culture and hates the racial discrimination. He also reflects Orwell’s own experience and personal characteristics. Additionally, Orwell also creates two typical Burmese, Ma Hla May and Dr. Veraswami. In the article “Kipling, the Orient, and Orientals: ‘Orientalism’”, author David Scott argues that some European writers may hold an assumption of the unfamiliar orient, which is called Orientalism (Scott 300). Although many people consider that Burmese Days opposes imperialism, I will show that Orwell cannot completely evade the worldview of Orientalism in Burmese Days, especially in the description of characters. This can be viewed in the negative images of Ma Hla May and Dr. Veraswami, and Flory’s contradictory behaviors in Burmese Days.
For instance, when Orwell represents Ma Hla May, he narrates her as a lewd, slavish woman. First of all, the author describes the Burmese woman as an erotic. Once Flory loses his temper and abuses her, she does not get mad: “She lays and lets him do as he wished with her, quite passive yet pleased and faintly smiling, like a cat which allows one to stroke it” (Orwell 53). If she is the mistress of Flory, she can be the white man’s wife. The status of Flory’s wife is an honor for her. In order to obtain the “love” from Flory, she satisfies the man by means of sex. Furthermore, according to description of her appearance:
Her tiny, straight, slender body is as contourless, as a bas-relief carved upon a tree. She is like a doll, with her oval, still face the color of new copper, and her narrow eyes; an outlandish doll and yet a grotesquely beautiful one (Orwell 51).
The author describes her as a typical “oriental.” She resembles a doll which can be played and controlled. Moreover, she promises that “she can be his slaves or lower than his slave”, as long as Flory lets her stay (Orwell 160). She begs for staying here, which definitely shows her servility. Ma Hla May admits that her status and position are lower than the white man, because she has to rely on the western man. More than that, “she has wound her arms round his ankles, actually is kissing his shoes” (Orwell 160). Not only can she be a slave, but also she is able to get rid of the self-dignity. To some extents, she is equal to a docile animal. In Ghaforian Ahmad and Gholi Ahmad’s words, when Orwell mentions the Burmese people, he applies the signal stereotype and Cliché to depict the Asian (Ahmad and Ahmad 1366). Orwell shapes a low and degrading image of Burmese woman. In Orwell’s depiction, serving the man is the duty of Burmese woman who is an accessory of the male.
Referring to another Burmese in the text, Dr. Veraswami is an Anglophile who cannot be ignored. Unlike U Po Kyin who works for British loyally for his own sake, Dr, Veraswami definitely owns the Eurocentrism thought that Europe is unique and exceptional (Sinha 492). He is not as wealthy as U Po Kyin, but he shows a positive attitude toward British management. First of all, he never criticizes the Britain and British, because he thinks that westerners are more intelligent than easterners. He says that “British people are the salt of the earth” (Orwell 36). Regardless of respecting Britain, Veraswami looks down upon his own race. For example, he believes that “it is at the bottom of half our beastliness to natives” (Orwell 37). From his perspective, the colonizers rescue their country from a backward area. Apparently, Orwell narrates a positive Burmese character, so Flory would like to get on well with the doctor. Actually, Dr, Veraswami has transformed to be a slave of the empire. Even if he is framed by U Po Kyin, his ideas of the excellent Britain never vanish. Orwell never judges Veraswami’s words and behaviors subjectively, but it is evident that Veraswami worships Britain. According to Sinha, Eurocentrism means that Europe differs from other areas, which is resulted from its modern civilization (Sinha 492). Despite the fact that Orwell criticizes the European social club, he shows the superiority of Europe indirectly. This superiority is built on the thoughts of an “oriental.”
Regardless of the negative images of Burmese, Orwell defines Flory as unbiased as himself, but Flory’s behaviors reflect white supremacy. At first, Flory treats the Burmese woman as a mistress, because he never chooses to marry her. Ahmad and Ahmad also contend that duplicity is a common issue in Orwell’s works, and the conflict is that he sympathizes the colonial for their race or culture, while he treats them inhumanly simultaneously (Ahmad and Ahmad 1362). Flory sympathizes the Burmese, while he drives his Burmese mistress rudely due to the white identity. When Elizabeth occurs, he is resolved to marry her. In fact, there are numerous diverges between them. Elizabeth is sick with Burmese people as well as India, while Flory is fond of oriental custom. In spite of many quarrels, Flory needs her to meet his emptiness. At least, she can share the common of nationality with him. Marrying a white girl is the only one way to forget his loneliness. Flory thinks that “she has bought back to him the air of England – dear England” (Orwell 156). He does not completely forget his white identity. As for him, England is an unforgettable homeland forever. Although Flory tries his best to enjoy the life in Burmese, it is impossible to eliminate the boundary between India and England, so does Orwell. As Flory says, if he marries Elizabeth, “there is a way of living – civilized, decent” (Orwell 289). At the end of the story, he still looks forward to get married no matter whether she loves him or not. Truthfully, Flory pays no attention to the real love or not. The reason why he is eager to marry is that it is difficult to meet a white girl in Burmese. White men are supposed to marry white women, which is such a common sense among westerners. Martínez points out that since the mid-1800s, the new historical development served to strengthen the concept of whiteness, particularly the western expansion (Martínez 3). Flory is regarded as a narrative stand-in for Orwell, so Orwell is also unable to do away with the superiority of the white in his mind.
Despite some of his moments of enlightenment, George Orwell still represents the worldview of Orientalism in Burmese Days; he shapes the Burmese with negative characteristics, and Flory cannot radically abandon the idea of white superiority. Ahmad and Ahmad have said that Orwell simultaneously criticizes and sympathizes with both the colonizer and the colonial (Ahmad and Ahmad1366). I am convinced George Orwell is a humanist who has a tendency to stand by the colonial for humanity. Edward Said considers that Orientalism relates to the different ontological and epistemological (Said 2). Undoubtedly influenced by the current culture and the western education, Orwell’s the oriental description is still limited and incomplete.
Ahmad, Ghaforian, and Gholi Ahmad. “A Postcolonial Reading of George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant with Special Reference to Edward Said’s Orientalism and Binary of the Self and the Other.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies 5.7 (2015): 1361-367. ProQuest. Academy Publication. Web.
Martínez, Elizabeth. “What Is White Supremacy?” SOA Watch. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Orwell, George. Burmese Days. London: Penguin, 2009. Print.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Penguin, 1978. Web.
Scott, David. “Kipling, the Orient, and Orientals: “orientalism” Reoriented?” Journal of World History 22.2 (2011): 299–328. JSTOR. Web.
Sinha, Mrinalini. “Britishness, Clubbability, and the Colonial Public Sphere: The Genealogy of an Imperial Institution in Colonial India.” Journal of British Studies 40.4 (2001): 489-521. JSTOR. Web.