Guide to George Orwell, Burmese Days (1934)
I want you to read this novel for many reasons. It is good writing, something of a rare commodity nowadays. It reveals clearly the malaise and ennui that infused the British colonial system that was straining under numerous forces in the 1930s. It indicates, if obliquely at times, why Indian and Burmese citizens eventually demanded and received their independence.
George Orwell (pen name for Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950)
There are some obvious issues/questions to ponder:
Refresh your memory about the pro-colonialism and anti-colonialism arguments discussed in class. Note how Orwell’s novel addresses these through themes, specific events, and characterizations.
What does U Po Kyin’s life suggest about indigenous people and colonialism? Does Orwell include other similar characters? Other contrasting characters? Where does the corruption in Burmese society come from?
Why could Flory not support Dr. Veraswami for admittance into the European Club?
How do you characterize Flory’s last act in the novel?
Less obvious issues to ponder:
Are there any clues in this novel to Orwell’s later works [Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four(1949)]?
Are there any clues
to the events of the post-WW II era when
Some on-line sites to consult:
George Orwell’s Life
Arthur Blair’s life not only covered the first half of the 20th century, but it also represents a metaphor for understanding some of the major forces of the era, particularly the end of colonialism and the attraction of socialism/communism.
His mother (daughter of a tea merchant in Burma) and his father (British civil servant in India) reflected/lived within the British imperial system. Educated at Eton in England, Blair grew disenchanted with the class system and became attracted to the lower classes.
During his five years (1922-1927) in Burma (today, its officials insist on calling the nation “Myanmar”) Blair grew close to the Burmese people and realized how corrupt British colonialism was. An assistant superintendent in the Indian Imperial Police, Blair had a native mistress, like most other officers.
IN MOULMEIN, IN
LOWER BURMA, I was hated by large numbers of people--the only time in my life
that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was
sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way
anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but
if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody
would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an
obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee
(another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd
yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the
sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted
after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young
Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in
the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street
corners and jeer at Europeans.
All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically--and secretly, of course--I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos--all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.
Blair tramped around in the late 1920s, fascinated by the poor, although he often visited his sister or parents to escape the continuous life of poverty. His contact with the poor fueled his desire to be a writer if not, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, his talent. By 1933, however, he published a successful book, Down and Out in Paris and London. Having taken on the name George Orwell (one of several suggested by a literary agent), he became a teacher, book shop clerk, and journalist for the rest of the 1930s. In the latter role, Orwell continued his focus on the poor.
While covering the Spanish Civil War, Orwell, like many others sided with the rebels against the fascists. The complex situation, however, led to the communists attacking Orwell and his wife, but both escaped. Orwell opposed communism and fascism and supported English-style socialism for the remainder of his life. He was a journalist for the BBC during World War II, during which time he composed The Animal Farm (1945) which savagely satirized communism under Stalin (and furnished a comfortable life for him). His first wife died in 1946, after they had adopted a boy. After the war he moved to a Scottish island, suffered from tuberculosis, and wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He married his second wife a few months before he died in January 1950. Orwell died of complications from tuberculosis (only in 1946 was streptomycin developed to treat this common disease).
First I spent
five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in
The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one's political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one's aesthetic and intellectual integrity.
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, "I am going to produce a work of art." I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.