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The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The novel’s effect is derived in part from characters who, with few exceptions, are unsympathetic. They are also notable for their political and national standpoints, which obtrude at each turn. Although they are not archetypal and indeed seem to have few original ideas of their own, their attitudes and bearing are broadly evocative of colonial government in its most direct manifestations. Ellis, the most insular and overtly prejudiced of the British men, is tolerated and accepted by his compatriots. In varying or lesser degrees, the others also hold themselves above and apart from the natives; Macgregor is perhaps more resigned and philosophical than the rest in his outlook. Verrall, on the other hand, has little respect for any man who is not a skilled polo player or a ranking cavalry officer; his undisguised contempt for Asian troops once had brought him an official reprimand from his British superiors. The imperial officials seem to have little to do. While Verrall, during his appearances, occupies himself with horsemanship and romance, and Macgregor for some time follows an exercise regimen, during quiet periods the others move from club to home at a languid pace; attended by servants, they drink whiskey and bemoan the Empire’s fate.

The direct means of political control used by the British officials contrast with the cunning, oblique methods preferred by the natives. Dr. Veraswami, whose medical credentials at one point are called into question, must attempt his social entry indirectly, through his friend Flory. More than a match for any of them is U Po Kyin, whose obese, ponderous, and benevolent appearance belies his finely honed skill at manipulating the British as well as his own people. It may readily be inferred that he secretly encourages nationalist agitation and incites his fellow countrymen to riot before conspicuously bringing them to heel in the presence of the British authorities. His guile in using Ma Hla May to expose Flory and thus undermine the Indian doctor achieves its end, but he dies at the very moment when he begins construction of a pagoda to expiate his many sins. The narrator speculates that, according to Buddhist beliefs, he may have returned to this life in a particularly vile and lowly guise, but however repulsive, he remains fascinating as a subtle and intricate plotter.

When introduced, Flory is described as having a prominent birthmark across his face; in a society rigidly divided between British and Asians, he seems to be a pariah of sorts. A weak figure however well-meaning he may appear, he is corrupted by the social environment even as he chides against the excesses of colonial rule. This capitulation to local mores is underscored in his relations with native women. He has an elemental sense of decency but has seen the aspirations of his early days dwindle away. His control of his situation in life is most tenuous; this demonstrated by his humiliation and his eventual suicide.

In the end, Elizabeth Lackersteen proves to be hardheaded and resilient; she is able to adapt to her circumstances. Her marriage to Macgregor, the best of an otherwise undistinguished lot among the British functionaries, provides a curiously hopeful turn to events at the end of the novel.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Flory

John Flory, a timber merchant stationed in the village of Kyauktada in Upper Burma. About thirty-five years old and with a face stained by a prominent birthmark, Flory seems destined to a lonely bachelorhood in the insular company of the few other British subjects of the area. Like them, he spends much of his time living the life of the “pukka sahib,” the loyal representative of British values and European styles of living. Also like them, he spends much of his spare time drinking and gossiping at the British Club. Flory is sensitive and observant, however, and, unlike most of his bigoted countrymen in Upper Burma, he has a genuine respect for eastern culture. He counts Dr. Veraswami, an Indian, as one of his...

(The entire section is 1,212 words.)