Burmese Days: An Example of Imperialism Nineteenth century industrialization brought new riches and power to Western Europe, driving the expansion of opportunities and the building of empires in undeveloped territories. Although the developed countries brought many modern technologies to under-developed nations, they also brought fierce racism and European arrogance. Burmese Days by George Orwell was written in 1834 as a satirical view of English imperial life in Burma. Orwell provides a realistic observation of the arrogance the English demonstrated towards the natives and how they justified their actions.
Europeans brought many new technologies to the countries that they imperialized. They built railroads and other types of infrastructure, and they brought new technology in weaponry and manufacturing. However, it seems that their extreme arrogance had the most impact on the native people. Cecil Rhoads epitomizes the attitude of all Europeans when he says “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is” (Hunt et al 802). Although Orwell’s characters in Burmese Days are English, the attitude was not exclusive to the English.
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Hunt et al discusses how King Leopold of Belgium claimed the Congo region of central Africa “inflicting on local Africans unparalleled acts of cruelty” (801). The fact that the Europeans thought themselves superior to all other races seems to give them permission to treat the native people in any manner they choose. Ellis is an example of an extreme racist in Orwell’s work. Ellis is a member of the European Club, a manager at the timber company, and is the most outspoken and obviously racist character in the novel.
He spews forth a diatribe of foul language and name calling directed towards the Burmese people at every opportunity. No one can reason with him or change his attitude, as he is completely blind to any endearing qualities of the native people. He is very resentful of Flory, the protagonist, who has an affection for the Burmese and who considers Burma his home. Although Flory has a fondness towards the Burmese people, he still considers himself superior to them which is especially demonstrated through his interactions his Mistress, Ma Hla May.
On the day he meets Elizabeth, when Ma Hla May shows up he tells her “Go away this instant. If you make any trouble I will afterwards take a bamboo and beat you till not one of your ribs is whole” (Orwell 87). It is doubtful that he would carry through with the beating, but the threat demonstrates his feeling of superiority. The attitudes of the English are wrong, but perhaps understandable. They assume that because the Burmese are not educated in the same manner as the English, they are not as intelligent. Since the country is not industrialized they have no ambition.
Since they are mild mannered and do not fight the English (who have guns), they have surrendered to their natural place in society. Since their skin is brown instead of white, they are not beautiful. One must question how history would change if the Europeans of the 19th century and all people up to today would choose to learn and understand the cultures of others rather than pass judgments and make assumptions. Just as struggles between the upper and lower class were born from a lack of understanding for the other man’s condition in the early days of industrialization, the same is true for the times of imperialism.
The English in Burmese Days have taken control of the area with no consideration to the plight of the native people. They are stronger and in their own world they are smarter. The strong dominate the weak, and the weak have no choice but to submit. One can be hopeful that strong societies will learn the rewards of building others up through education and sharing rather than tearing others down through dominance and discrimination. In the end, Burmese Days is a sad story. The protagonist, John Flory commits suicide over the loss of the woman he loves.
However, the saddest part of the story is that the English never really discover the error of their superior attitude. Although these are fictional characters, it is clear that they will go through life with their self-righteous attitudes, and will never know what the Burmese can teach them. They have convinced themselves so thoroughly that their actions are justified; there is no hope for change for them, but there is still hope for us. Work Cited Hunt, Lynn et al. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Boston. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2007. Orwell, George. Burmese Days. New York. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1950.