Burmese Days Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

However exotic the setting, the Burma of Orwell’s work is far from idyllic; his evocation of that country is lively and steeped in gritty realities. The land is hot, indeed steamy during the rainy season, and it is dirty; there is a profusion of flies and mosquitoes and also some tapeworms. The Burmese are sometimes described as ugly: The men have swollen, misshapen heads and, often enough, bloated, distended members set off by protruding pot bellies. The women are spare and flat-chested—or at least Flory finds them so in judging them to be generally unattractive. Moreover, institutions and administrative functions controlled by the natives seem corrupt and unresponsive to local needs: The justice dispensed by U Po Kyin is tempered by his own ambitions and self-seeking, conniving ways. At a local jail, an obese Sub-inspector explains that whenever a suspect is brought in, he is examined for marks of previous floggings; prior offenders are thus promptly convicted and punished, allowing the Burmese to resolve cases of theft or other crimes quickly and easily. The local hospital, presided over by Dr. Veraswami, is feared and distrusted by most Burmese patients. Pills are dispensed from three piles, according to whether pain has settled in the head, back, or belly. The doctor’s surgery consists of “belly-cutting,” of which those afflicted are frankly terrified.

The Burmese also seem incapable of sustained political action on behalf of larger ideals. At one point, the narrator observes that eight hundred natives, roughly, are murdered each year, some by other Asians and some in conflicts with the British. Even so, apart from occasional reprisals, they cannot mount a riot worthy of the name, and their own magistrate prevails upon them to desist from any further attacks upon a numerically far inferior colonial outpost. It would seem that Orwell’s indictment of imperial rule is grounded in an unswerving realism, by which he depicts the natives as backward and corrupt, in many senses far from heroic; by pointing out their essential weakness, he also indicates the brutal ease with which men such as Ellis and Westfield may hold sway over large numbers of Asian peoples whom they despise and distrust.