Loneliness And Corruption: A Book Review of George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’

August 22, 2010 § 2 Comments

I had initially approached Orwell’s Burmese Days expecting it to be somewhat a travelogue, a record of adventures in 1930’s exotic Far East. I was wrong. I probably failed to remind myself this is the same man that wrote 1984, that I found so profound (and very difficult to understand, at age 18).

Yet it might have helped that I approached the book with a fresh perspective, still with an understanding that the book was derived from George Orwell’s experiences in British Imperial India, and Burma. In fact, each of Orwell’s novels was more of a political statement than anything else, from events that left an unerasable print (or scar) on his life.

I am introduced into Orwell’s life in the 1930’s: Hot, wet, and stuffy tropical Burma with its corrupt local magistrates, plotting against political rivals, jockeying British masters against each other, to their own benefit. One of these is our protagonist, James Flory. Sent to Burma as a civillian logging contractor in his youth,  Flory faces isolation and loneliness, even in the company of fellow British subjects, who do not share his appreciation for local Burmese culture, his Indian friend Dr Veraswami, and his gradual understanding of the futility of British rule in Burma.

Throughout the book, and especially early on, Orwell comes up with the most colorful prose describing Flory’s predicament.

“Since then, each year had been lonelier and more bitter than the last. What was at the centre of all his thoughts now, and what poisoned everything, was the ever bitterer hatred of the atmosphere of imperialism in which he lived. For as his brain developed – you cannot stop your brain developing, and it is one of the tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life- he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism- benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.”

“And it occured to him- a thing he had actually forgotten in the stagnant air of Burma- that he was still young enough to begin over again.”

“It is not the less bitter becuase it is perhaps one’s own fault, to see oneself drifitng, rotting, in dishonour and horrible futility, and all the while knowing that somewhere within one there is the possibility of a decent human being.”

What makes this worse, and effectively dooms Flory’s fate (and the story’s ending) to an unhappy one, is the arrival of a beautiful English girl Elizabeth.

Now, alot has been said, and to be said about romance in fictional contexts ( worst to least worst?: movies, TV, Facebook, books). They hardly reflect true human relationships in reality. But Orwell comes up with some well fleshed-out characterizations of his female roles in Elizabeth:

“It was not unnatural, with the example of her mother before her eyes, that Elizabeth should have a healthy loathing of Art. In fact, any excess of intellect – “braininess” was her word for it- tended to belong, in her eyes, to the ‘beastly’. Real people, she felt, decent people- people who shot grouse, went to Ascot, yachted at Cowes- were not brainy. They didn’t go in for this nonsense of writing books and fooling with paint brushes; and all these highbrow ideas- Socialism and all that. ‘Highbrow’ was a bitter word in her vocabulary. and when it happened, as it did once or twice, that she met a veritable artist who was willing to work penniless all his life rather than sell himself to a bank or an insurance company, she despised him far more than she despised dabblers of her mother’s circle. That a man should turn deliberately away from all that was good and decent, sacrifice himself for a futility that led nowhere, was shameful, degrading, evil. She dreaded spinsterhood, but she would have endured it a thousand lifetimes through rather than marry such a man.”

Flory, and Orwell himself, seemed to fit such a description of a man perfectly. As insightful about events, people and cultures around him, Flory was blinded to his own infatuation with the dim-witted Elizabeth.

I was attracted to the ideas of loneliness and corruption the most.

The best fiction (or at least my favourite) isn’t made out of thin air, or “the stuff that dreams are made of”, but a criticism, and comment on the Human Condition. (what it truly means to be a fucking human being)

Depth-Conversations,  Surface-Talk

Do you often find yourself in situations, where you haven’t had a good conversation for a long time, and you feel your greatest need is simply, to talk?

It isn’t simply mundane talk that you’re after, but talk that bears your lifestream, the direction of your thoughts, the genuine beliefs you hold. But more often than not, these unconventional beliefs can’t be spoken just to everyone, before it starts to sound like blasphemy to the common man.

I often find myself in a fit of verbal diahrrea-age after long periods of lack-of-conversation. This “lack-of-conversation” comes not because there isn’t anyone around me to have one with, but no one to talk into the depths of one’s soul. Which might explain why there are jobs where people sit to listen to others pour their hearts out for hours on end.

Again, Orwell’s description of Flory bares what he must have felt as a young man in Burma that begins to understand the mediocrity of his life and those around him:

“To talk, simply to talk! It sounds so little, and how much it is! When you have existed to the brink of middle age in bitter loneliness, among people to whom your true opinion on every subject on earth is blasphemy, the need to talk is the greatest of all needs.”

I am often told it simply isn’t healthy to go too deep, or spend too much time on seemingly meta-issues, on life and meaning. True, sometimes you don’t see the relevance in the minute-to-minute, day-to-day existence of daily life.

But without the depth, simply living on life’s surface isn’t very appealing.

I don’t have yet a 100 per cent accurate view of my own social habits, but often I feel depth-conversation comes to me much easily that the mundane (yet sometimes very necessary) surface-talk, or small talk. Some people seem to have it at their fingertips.

But I think the best conversationalists have the ability to switch between both forms of conversations according to the person and situation. Social maladroits on the other hand, are often stuck in their own headland and can never move beyond what they like talking about.


Reflecting on Orwell’s protest-novel against British Imperialism, I can’t help but think of how it might have laid the foundations of the social and political criticism to come in Animal Farm and 1984 The totalitarian nightmare that Orwell prophesized has realized in modern day Burma/ Myanmar, which is set to hold its first elections in nearly twenty years.


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§ 2 Responses to Loneliness And Corruption: A Book Review of George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’

  • Shyam says:

    true… not sure who said this, but it still rings true: The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

  • Matthew (Bibliofreak.net) says:

    Nice post – really interesting to gather some others’ thoughts on this, as I’ve just finished reading it. I think you’re right to link Flory’s and Orwell’s own qualities, and the discussion of isolation, of having no one to talk openly to, is really thought-provoking too.

    Latest post: Review: Burmese Days by George Orwell

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