Book Review: Burmese Days by George Orwell

Burmese Days was inspired by George Orwell’s time as a military policeman in 1920’s Imperial Burma. It depicts the life of Florey, a British timber merchant who, though a member of the local European expatriate community, bristles at the crude racial hierarchy and unflinchingly harsh xenophobia of his compatriots.

Ingratiated within the all-white, all European ‘Club’, a bar that serves as the hive of prejudicial activity, Florey grows to resent the stifling code he must abide by, inwardly despising the lie that empire is for the good of the native. Conscious of the empire’s true, despotic nature and finding no willing recipient for these ideas, Florey retreats into reading, whisky and brothels.

The only salvation, he believes, is finding a companion, or wife with whom he can share common ideas and passions that are otherwise supressed. Dr Verasami, an Indian doctor, is a close confidante and yet is entranced with the glory of the empire, too conditioned in the belief of British superiority for Florey to find any true relief in their friendship.

The arrival of Elizabeth Lackersteen, the niece of local timber manager – Mr Lackersteen, offers Florey a chance to escape from the mundane isolation of his life. Florey abandons his Burmese mistress for the tantalizing promise of romance with Elizabeth, exposing his implicit conviction that an Asian wife is unfitting for a European and betraying, for all his moral resistance to uglier discrimination, the racist social conditioning of the time.

Simultaneously, a corrupt Burmese official plots to discredit Dr Verasami in pursuit of gaining admittance as the first non-European member of the ‘Club’. Dr Verasami is viewed as a competitor to this esteemed position, but with Florey’s influence, the doctor is untouchable, symbolic of the impregnable protection association with a European affords.

Primarily, Orwell successfully conveys the dismaying racial attitudes and all-encompassing sense of superiority in the British expatriates. Such attitudes are suggestive of the toxic social conditioning brought about by the establishment of the empire and values of the time.

The novel also humanizes dissident voices and attitudes towards the empire, portraying the struggle between adhering to what is expected of you and your own internal misgivings and resistance.

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