The Waning Days of British Imperialism in “A Passage to India” and “Burmese Days”

May 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the preface to The English Novel in the Twentieth Century [The Doom of Empire], Martin Green claims that “One could read all the works of the Great Tradition, and never know that England had an empire”. While this argument could be applied to the bourgeois, largely domestic nature of the nineteenth-century literary canon, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) and George Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934) mark the development of a post-war, politically engaged consciousness, largely triggered by the brutal Amritsar massacre of 1919. Both novels – influenced by the writers’ own experiences in the East – launch a fiercely satirical attack on the conduct of the British Raj overseas and the moral bankruptcy of the English country club. A particularly noticeable aspect of Orwell’s and Forster’s critiques is the complicity of English women in encouraging and reinforcing masculine ideals of belligerence and jingoism in the East, thus exacerbating the strained relations between natives and their British rulers. However, although both texts exhibit a shared disdain for the overbearing, Kiplingesque pomposity of the British ruling classes in the East, Forster’s liberal pragmatism and humanist approach contrasts to the more radical and nihilistic tone of Orwell’s novel, thereby demonstrating how the works of both writers present us with innovative and challenging, yet strikingly distinguishable, interpretations of the flagging days of British imperialism. E.M. Forster wrote A Passage to India against a backdrop of political turbulence and simmering racial tensions, largely compounded by the incompetence of the British colonialists in the East. His novel consistently contrasts the blind complacency and barely-hidden racial prejudice of the colonists with their repeated assertion that they “are out here to do justice and keep the peace” [45]. The callous conduct of the British inevitably has a detrimental effect on cross-cultural understanding and friendship, and, despite the naive efforts of Mrs Moore and the aptly-named Adela Quested to gain an authentic view of India, the oppressive and unjust political structure of the country results in the two women experiencing a divisive and strikingly unfathomable environment. Indeed, while observing her son, the City Magistrate, at work in the court, Mrs Moore laments the insensitivity and negligence of the British Raj in India: How he did rub it in that he was not in India to behave pleasantly, and derived positive satisfaction therefrom… One touch of regret – not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart – would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution. [46]Amongst this destructive mire of bigotry and suspicion, it is only the elderly Brahmin, Godbole, with his distinctly non-British form of wisdom, who expresses the intrinsic unity of East and West (“When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe. Similarly when good occurs”). Through the character of Godbole, Forster skillfully adopts the ancient values of Hinduism as a vehicle for an alternative and remarkably contemporary mode of thought regarding cross-cultural relations, thus paving the way for a succession of ground-breaking and provocative literary representations of colonialism. Published a decade after Forster’s novel, George Orwell’s Burmese Days embarks on a vitriolic and darkly humorous attack of the grandiose illusions of imperialism and the crass, mindless debauchery of the administrative staff, whose crude reliance on “Booze as the cement of empire” [37] results in the development of a society steeped in moral failure and corruption. Despite being set during the waning days of British colonialism, the bullish nature of the exclusive and fiercely racist “Kipling-haunted little Clubs” [69] ensure that any form of political dissent is crushed, leaving the protagonist, John Flory, isolated in his comprehension of the ways in which Empire degrades the natives whom it self-importantly claims to uplift. Similarly to Forster’s narrative, Orwell expresses a firm belief that no member of a subjugated race can develop a true friendship with a member of the dominant race, as the oppressive political structures at work in Burma ensure that such a friendship will end in betrayal and resentment. As Flory reflects following a heated political exchange in the European Club, “With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship.” [80], a notion which augments the socially-constructed and seemingly impenetrable barrier to positive relationships between Englishmen and their colonial subjects. Paradoxically, however, both novels feature an unlikely alliance between a Western male and an educated native, in both cases a doctor. Indeed, Orwell uses the bond between Flory and Dr. Veriswami to humorously employ the diagnostic language adopted by many politically engaged writers during the interwar period, derisively likening the British Empire to an elderly patient: “Aha, Mr Flory, she iss very low, very low! Grave complications setting in. Septicaemia, peritonitis and paralysis of the ganglia.” [35]. By adopting the language of diagnosis and cure as a metaphor for the dying British Empire, Orwell evokes a disturbing sense of cultural sickness and contagion, which, in turn, warns of the corruptive nature of the Anglo-Indians’ crudely mercenary approach to society. Instead of bringing peace and justice to the native people of the East, Orwell suggests that the function of the British simply amounts to “rubbing our dirt onto them” [40], with Englishmen and Burmans alike committing abhorrent deeds for the sake of social mobility and prestige. Forster’s novel addresses a similar process of moral debasement at work amongst British expatriates in India: “They all become exactly the same, not worse, not better. I give any Englishman two years” [9]. Even the Indian Dr. Aziz – an affectionate and youthful presence for much of the novel – becomes consumed by a “genuine hatred of the English”, eventually isolating himself from Flory as a result of his humiliation at the hands of the British law: “I am an Indian at last, he thought, standing motionless in the rain” [278-9]. It is therefore clear that, rather than bringing a beacon of hope and prosperity to the East, as literary antecedents such as Rudyard Kipling had implied, the narratives of Forster and Orwell depict the presence of Anglo-Indians as a deeply destructive force in the East, circulating petty resentments and deep-seated prejudices which eventually tear apart positive human relationships. In this way, the highly anglicised colonial setting evoked by Forster and Orwell is arguably a microcosm of British society, with its myopic “country club” mentality acting as a poor recreation of suburban England. Indeed, the political somnolence of Middle England is a recurring theme in Orwell’s writing; his personal account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938), expresses his dismay at returning from Spain to a complacent, distinctly “English” society, with seemingly no connection to foreign affairs (“Earthquakes in Japan, famine in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning”). Interestingly, however, both Orwell and Forster’s biting satire is most ruthlessly exercised towards Anglo-Indian women, whom they frequently depict as chief collaborators in the colonial system of oppression and subjugation. For example, the haughty, colonial wife in A Passage to India, Mrs Turton, most effectively encapsulates the Englishwoman’s scornful and highly gendered intolerance of Indian natives through her series of increasingly absurd outbursts: “Why, they ought to crawl from here to the caves on their hands and knees whenever and Englishwoman’s in sight, they oughtn’t be spoken to, they ought to be spat at” [204]. Similarly, the primary female character in Burmese Days is mystified and repelled by Flory’s admiration of Burmese culture – “She was grasping, dimly, that his views were not the views an Englishman should hold.” [121] – yet becomes attracted to him when he adopts a conventional, “manly” demeanour at a shooting expedition. Through their position as agents of chauvinism and oppression, therefore, women are equated with British “civilisation” and become a destructive and dogmatic force in the East, a consensus between the two authors that has prompted the feminist literary critic, Jenny Sharpe, to conclude that the Anglo-Indian woman “perhaps more than anyone else, embodies the memsahib in all her contradictions”. However, it is important to recognise the differing ways in which Orwell and Forster approach their critique of English colonialism. Unlike Forster in A Passage to India, Orwell actually addresses the underlying economic reasons for the British presence in the East: “how can you make out that we are in this country for any purpose except to steal? It’s so simple. The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets” [38]. Through Flory’s withering account of colonial ambitions in Burma, the reader gains an insight into Orwell’s growing political radicalism, with critics agreeing that his experience in the country doubtlessly accentuated his sensitivity to the unjust caste system at home in Britain. As such, his acute disillusion with the British social system is reflected through the troubling sense of nihilism that permeates the text, a powerful scepticism that manifests itself most palpably in the novel’s tragic and unsettling conclusion: “There is a rather large number of suicides among the Europeans in Burma, and they occasion very little surprise” [295]. Orwell’s Burma is a socially fragmented country of indigenous corruption and imperial hypocrisy, and the reader is offered very little hope of redemption or justice. Forster, on the other hand, avoids making these sweeping structural condemnations, instead placing emphasis on the personal rather than directly addressing the social and political implications of British colonialism. This humanist tendency is apparent through his repeated speculation over whether an Englishman and Indian can ever be friends under colonialism, a preoccupation that runs throughout the text. It is important to remember that Forster is not advocating an end to British imperialism – instead he favours a more conciliatory and tolerant form of British rule in India – thus his text lacks the radical undertones of Orwell’s Burmese Days. Moreover, Forster does not share the overly bleak outlook held by Orwell, as memorably demonstrated in the final horseback-riding scene, where Fielding and Aziz attempt at reconciliation:But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it…the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.” [306]The literary theorist Edward Said believes this conclusion to be “disappointing”, serving as a gloomy mark of the East’s permanent estrangement from the West. However, he arguably fails to acknowledge the resonant sense of hope embedded in these lines (“not yet… not there”), and the gentle poignancy of the two friends’ final outing. Through its depiction of the complexities and development of Fielding and Aziz’s relationship, the novel subtly implies that cross-cultural friendship, though frustratingly elusive in colonial times, may be achieved in the future. As such, Forster could be said to share the “evolutionary meliorism” of writers such as Thomas Hardy, who favoured a reasoned and rational approach to social issues. While Mrs Moore and Adela ultimately fail in their “quest” for true communion with India, the reader is awakened to the possibility of a new age of tolerance and understanding, therefore raising hopes for the liberalisation of Anglo-Indian rule and improved relations between East and West. In conclusion, both Forster and Orwell present a penetrating and socially conscious depiction of Britain’s weakening control over the East, exhibiting varying degrees of pessimism with regard to the future of relations between Englishmen and natives. While Forster’s ire is directed chiefly at the negligent and callous attitudes of the public schoolboys who rule India, Orwell presents a sustained critique of the political structures that maintain imperialism, making it possible to identify Burmese Days as a radical 1930s rejoinder to Forster’s influential novel. In any case, Orwell and Forster’s bitingly satirical representations of British imperialism mark a significant departure from the nationalist, soldierly rhetoric of Rudyard Kipling, and have therefore proved instrumental in shaping the public and literary discourse surrounding imperialism in the East.

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