George Orwell’s Burmese Days
Considering his stature in 20th century letters, George Orwell is kind of a strange writer. He’s kind of free of distinctive quirkiness. His style and his content aren’t very heavily branded on his forehead the way they are for most writers. I guess the closest thing to a trademark for George Orwell would be his commitment to “socialism”. But Orwell is not even very specific in his politics. His socialism is about 20% vague commitment to redistribution of wealth, and 80% visceral horror of the evils he sees around him.
Orwell, seems (to me) to have three really great talents as a writer: i) the ability to make very confident assertions about the way categories of people (particularly English people) live and think; ii) a talent for aphorism (short, pithy sayings); and iii) a Dickensian ability to write archetypal characters that contain significant psychological complexity, but are vivid and broadly drawn enough to feel like they’re more representative of types than they are specific people.
These three abilities (and probably others which my categorizing impulse has missed) make Orwell one of the most intensely pleasurable writers of the 20th century. I’ve just finished reading Burmese Days, his first novel. I read it through in two sittings, over less than twelve hours. And it was real good.
You know, I am a huge fan of social protest novels. I like Zola. I like Sinclair Lewis. I like Willa Cather. But Orwell is somehow unlike them. His heroes are just not good enough. They’re too ineffectual and confused.
For instance, Burmese Days is about a military policeman (named Flory) in the British colony of Burma who has slowly (over the course of fifteen years) cultivated a kind of love for the colony and a kind of hatred of imperialism, and who finds himself in the grip of an inchoate resentment against the other Europeans in his tiny little outpost.
Now, in the hands of most authors, this character would pretty much be Atticus Finch. He’d be intelligent, determined, and brave. I mean, there are a lot of different kinds of Atticus Finches in literature, and I love them all. There are naïve ones, like Carol Kennicott in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. There are grimly furious ones like in Jim Nolan in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle. There are even conservative ones like Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.
But what they all share is a kind of self-awareness. They are not just characters. They are a visible working-out of the novel’s attempt to figure out some idea or explain some process. They’re as smart and good as one can imagine a person being in that situation. They need to be that way because these novels are thinking about how things can change, and what the process of change will entail: the agent of potential change cannot just be some ordinary sap because we know that if an ordinary sap was capable of doing anything then there would be no need for change.
But I do not think Burmese Days really cares about these kinds of practicalities. Its main character, Flory, is not just ineffectual, he’s also kind of stupid. When he gets tired of the native-bashing at the English club, he goes to visit his friend Dr. Veraswami and engages in an equally repetitive, and tedious conversation on how awful the empire is. And his friend, the honest, noncorrupt, Indian Doctor who represents the best of the subjugated peoples, is not only a huge bumbler as well, he actually takes the British Raj’s side and argues with Flory that his people need to be subjugated
The two of them are a great pair. But they are not a heroic one. They are not Atticus Finch and Boo Radley. They’re not even Scout and Dill. There’s nothing free about them. They do not strive for any illumination. They’re already hemmed in.
In the end of the book, all that Flory has to do to prevent ruin from befalling Dr. Veraswami (the plot of the book is about another Burmese official waging a smear campaign against the Doctor) is speak up. Literally, all he has to do is want to do something. He does not need to persuade a hostile jury: he just needs to use the amazing power that being a white man gives him…but that is too much for him.
Conversely, the second plotline concerns a young woman, Elizabeth, whom Flory attempts to court. For awhile she is interested in him, but for reasons of her own she hates his highmindedness and his political opinions. She falls in with a handsome young officer who only cares about horses and clothes.
They’re two of the villains of the book, probably, but they also don’t fit the template. Usually the villains in books like this are somewhat torpid and blank. They don’t have active desires. They don’t have any beauty or vitality. The life has been sucked out of them a long time ago, and it is only their lifelessness that forms a barrier to change.
But these two don’t seem that way. They almost seem good together. Sometimes it seems like their lifestyle is a gracious, beautiful thing, and that they are more suited to this Empire than people like Flory. Take for instance the beautiful sympathy between them conveyed by the following passage:
Belinda was an Arab mare. Verrall had owned her two years, and till this moment he had never once allowed anyone else to mount her. It was the greatest favor that he could imagine. And so perfectly did Elizabeth appreciate Verrall’s point of view that she understood the greatness of the favor, and was thankful.
And there’s a kind of beauty and honesty to Verrall that is missing from any other character in the book, as the book makes clear:
If you were the right kind of man-that is, if you were a cavalry officer and a polo player-Verrall took you for granted and even treated you with a surly respect; if you were any other type of man whatever, he despised you so utterly that he could not have hidden it even if he would. It did not even make any difference whether you were rich or poor, for in the social sense he was not more than normally a snob. Of course, like all sons of rich families, he thought poverty disgusting and that poor people are poor because they prefer disgusting habits. But he despised soft living. Spending, or rather owing, fabulous sums on clothes, he yet lived almost as ascetically as a monk. He exercised himself ceaselessly and brutally, rationed his drink and his cigarettes, slept on a camp bed (in silk pyjamas) and bathed in cold water in the bitterest winter. Horsemanship and physical fitness were the only gods he knew. The stamp of hoofs on the maidan, the strong, poised feeling of his body, wedded centaur-like to the saddle, the polo-stick springy in his hand-these were his religion, the breath of his life. The Europeans in Burma-boozing, womanizing, yellow-faced loafers-made him physically sick when he thought of their habits.
When the book peers into the heads of these characters, one realizes that things are the way they are not because people want to be ugly and lifeless…but because people want things to be in a certain way. People sit around in the club talking about hunting and fishing and old stories because people like hunting and fishing and old stories…not just because they’re afraid to express all their resentment against the vast imperialist apparatus that has forced them into the wilderness. One realizes that, in other hands, this story could be a beautiful romance, and there’d be nothing sickening about it. It’s part of the genius of Orwell that this indictment of imperialism also contains the hints of that romance.