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Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Burmese Days brings together stories from colonial life in a narrative sequence that concludes with several violent deaths. U Po Kyin, the rotund and ruthless native judicial officer for the district, is plotting to turn nationalist agitation in a local newspaper against his rivals in a way that, he hopes, will ingratiate him with the imperial authorities. British functionaries gather at their exclusive club to discuss, among other matters, rumors of unrest among the local population. Passing conversation reveals the fears and prejudices they hold: Mr. Macgregor grimly murmurs, “In my young days, when one’s butler was disrespectful, one sent him along to the jail with a chit saying, ‘Please give the bearer fifteen lashes.’ . . . Those days are gone for ever, I am afraid.” When they hear a proposal, which had originated with the Commissioner, that their club consider accepting native members, Mr. Ellis snarls brusquely, “I don’t like niggers, to put it in one word.” Mr. Westfield solemnly maintains that excessive legalism and bureaucratic routine impede the real work of the imperial government in maintaining order and respect for authority. “British Raj is finished if you ask me,” he says.

John Flory, who works for a timber company, has spent most of his adult life in the Raj; he has grown weary of colonial ways but cannot extricate himself from his situation in Burma. More than the other British residents, he mixes freely with the natives. He is on friendly terms with Dr. Veraswami, an Indian physician; he becomes distinctly uncomfortable when some of his compatriots vent their disdain for Asians. Flory maintains a Burmese mistress, Ma Hla May, with whom he has a certain number of rather perfunctory assignations.

Lately, Flory has also taken an interest in Elizabeth Lackersteen, an orphan who has taken up residence in Burma with her aunt and uncle. He attempts to prove his mettle before her by introducing her to local pastimes in the wild. When they go shooting, he is impressed with her composure as he brings down a leopard. While polo-riding, however, he is deeply chagrined after he is thrown from his horse. Even worse, when Lieutenant Verrall, from the Military Police, arrives, Elizabeth is immediately attracted to him; they dance and ride together, to Flory’s intense discomfiture.

There are political tremors as well; at the club, Ellis calls for a formal vote on the admission of Flory’s friend, Dr. Veraswami, and then openly blackballs the Indian candidate. Native bearers bring in the body of Maxwell, a British forest ranger who was hacked to death after a shooting incident in which a Burmese was killed. Hordes of natives converge on the club. They are further incensed when Ellis strikes a native...

(The entire section is 685 words.)