55 pages 1 hour read

George Orwell

Burmese Days

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1934

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Burmese Days, written by George Orwell and published in 1934, is a critique of British imperialism and its effects on individuals and cultures. Set in the fictional district of Kyauktada in Upper Burma, at that time part of the British Raj, the novel tells the story of Flory, a 35-year-old English timber merchant who has spent his adult life in Burma. The novel focuses on the lonely Flory’s search for a wife, as well as the election of the first native member to the Kyauktada European Club.

Plot Summary

Flory’s most notable feature is a large, crescent-shaped birthmark that runs across the left side of his face. He spends three weeks of the month in his jungle camp overseeing the production of teak for export back to England and spends the remaining week in town, where his life centers on the club. Flory’s progressive beliefs and love of Burmese culture mark him as an outsider, and the other club members, particularly the virulently racist Ellis, bully him.

While Flory has a Burmese concubine, Ma Hla May, he is desperately lonely and longs for a European wife who will love the country as he does and who will save him from his horrible life. Flory’s only friend is the Indian surgeon Dr. Veraswami, the only person with whom Flory can speak frankly. During their conversations, Flory criticizes the British Empire as a vehicle for theft that is destroying the native culture; this idea agitates the doctor, who is a staunch defender of the empire.

U Po Kyin, a corrupt and scheming magistrate, learns of the club’s imperative to elect a native member and plans to ruin Veraswami’s prestige in order to assure his own election.

The arrival of the beautiful young Elizabeth, the orphaned niece of Mr. and Mrs. Lackersteen, alleviates Flory’s loneliness. He throws Ma Hla May out of his house and begins courting Elizabeth after saving her from a water buffalo. Although Flory’s love of art and the Burmese secretly horrifies Elizabeth, she entertains his courtship to escape her poverty and sexually aggressive uncle. Flory is about to propose when an earthquake and, shortly after, the arrival of a handsome, aristocratic cavalry officer named Verrall, interrupt his plans. Elizabeth quickly shifts her affections towards the wealthy and arrogant Verrall, devastating Flory.

Meanwhile, U Po Kyin pursues his campaign against Veraswami. Kyin sends anonymous letters accusing the doctor of various crimes. He also organizes a fake revolt, which he takes credit for putting down. During the revolt, Forestry Officer Maxwell shoots a native rebel in the back.

Later, Flory endorses Veraswami for club membership, but before the members can vote, Maxwell’s body is brought to the club—he has been killed in revenge. In retribution, Ellis violently assaults a teenage native, triggering a rebellion in Kyauktada. During the rebellion, Burmese rebels surround the club and demand Ellis be handed over.

Flory displays uncharacteristic courage and volunteers to swim to police lines to get reinforcements. Moreover, when District Commissioner Macgregor orders the police to shoot into the crowd, Flory defies him, and instead has the police shoot over their heads. The riot disperses and Flory is hailed as a hero, assuring Veraswami’s prestige due to their friendship. Verrall abandons Elizabeth, who shifts her attention back to Flory.

Furious that his schemes have failed, U Po Kyin has Ma Hla May interrupt a church service to reveal the details of her relationship with Flory to the other Europeans. This utterly disgraces Flory. Elizabeth tells him that she will never marry him, preferring death or spinsterhood. Seeing nothing left of value in his life, Flory returns home, kills his dog, and then himself.

With Flory gone, Veraswami is demoted and sent to another hospital. U Po Kyin joins the club, promoted by the colonial administration. With his dreams realized, U Po Kyin plans to redeem his karma by financing the construction of pagodas but dies of apoplexy before he can begin. Elizabeth plans to return penniless to England, but then accepts Macgregor’s unexpected proposal. Elizabeth happily lives out the rest of her life in comfort and in spiteful contempt of the natives, who live in fear of her.

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