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Home » Exploring the Themes and Symbolism in Burmese Days: A Literary Analysis by George Orwell

Exploring the Themes and Symbolism in Burmese Days: A Literary Analysis by George Orwell

Burmese Days is a novel by George Orwell that explores the themes of imperialism, racism, and corruption in colonial Burma. Through vivid descriptions and complex characters, Orwell uses symbolism to convey the harsh realities of British rule in Burma and the impact it has on both the colonizers and the colonized. In this literary analysis, we will delve deeper into the themes and symbolism present in Burmese Days, examining how they contribute to the novel’s overall message and significance.

Themes in Burmese Days

One of the major themes in George Orwell’s Burmese Days is the idea of imperialism and its effects on both the colonizers and the colonized. The novel is set in British-ruled Burma, and Orwell portrays the British as arrogant and oppressive towards the native Burmese people. The main character, John Flory, is a British timber merchant who is sympathetic to the Burmese and critical of his fellow colonizers. However, he is also aware of his own privilege and struggles with his own complicity in the system of imperialism. Another theme in the novel is the corruption and hypocrisy of the colonial administration, which is depicted as being more concerned with maintaining power and prestige than with serving the people they are supposed to govern. This is exemplified by the character of U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate who is willing to do whatever it takes to climb the ranks of the colonial hierarchy, including framing innocent people and inciting violence. Overall, Burmese Days is a powerful critique of imperialism and a reminder of the human cost of colonialism.

Colonialism and Imperialism

Colonialism and imperialism are central themes in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. The novel is set in the British colony of Burma during the 1920s, a time when the British Empire was at its height. Orwell’s portrayal of the colonial system is scathing, highlighting the racism, exploitation, and corruption that were inherent in the system. The novel’s protagonist, John Flory, is a British timber merchant who is disillusioned with the colonial system and sympathetic to the Burmese people. Through Flory’s experiences, Orwell exposes the hypocrisy and brutality of the colonial regime, as well as the psychological toll it takes on those who are complicit in it. The novel also explores the ways in which imperialism affects both the colonizers and the colonized, and the complex power dynamics that exist between them. Overall, Burmese Days is a powerful critique of colonialism and imperialism, and a reminder of the lasting impact these systems have had on the world.

Racism and Prejudice

In Burmese Days, George Orwell explores the themes of racism and prejudice through the lens of British colonialism in Burma. The novel depicts the ways in which the British colonizers viewed the Burmese people as inferior and treated them with disdain and cruelty. The character of U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate who aspires to climb the ranks of British colonial society, is a prime example of the internalized racism that can occur in colonized societies. He despises his own people and will do anything to gain the approval of his British superiors. The novel also portrays the damaging effects of colonialism on the Burmese people, who are forced to adopt British customs and language in order to survive in their own country. Orwell’s portrayal of the racism and prejudice inherent in colonialism serves as a powerful critique of the British Empire and its legacy of oppression.

Power and Corruption

Power and corruption are two themes that are intertwined in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. The novel explores the corrupt nature of the British colonial system in Burma and the ways in which power can be abused. The main character, John Flory, is a British timber merchant who is disillusioned with the colonial system and the way in which it oppresses the Burmese people. He is also aware of the corruption that exists within the system and the way in which it benefits the British at the expense of the Burmese.

One of the most striking examples of power and corruption in the novel is the character of U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate who is determined to climb the ranks of the colonial system. U Po Kyin is a master manipulator who uses his power to further his own interests and to destroy anyone who stands in his way. He is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals, including framing innocent people and inciting violence.

Through the character of U Po Kyin, Orwell highlights the corrupt nature of the colonial system and the way in which power can be abused. He also shows how the system is designed to benefit the British at the expense of the Burmese, and how this creates a sense of resentment and anger among the Burmese people.

Overall, power and corruption are central themes in Burmese Days, and Orwell uses them to explore the complex relationship between the British and the Burmese during the colonial period. The novel is a powerful critique of the colonial system and a reminder of the dangers of unchecked power and corruption.

Identity and Self-Discovery

Identity and Self-Discovery are two major themes explored in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. The novel follows the story of John Flory, a British timber merchant living in Burma during the British colonial era. Flory struggles with his identity as a British citizen living in a foreign land and his desire to fit in with the local Burmese community. He is torn between his loyalty to his country and his sympathy for the oppressed Burmese people.

Throughout the novel, Flory embarks on a journey of self-discovery as he grapples with his own prejudices and biases. He begins to question the morality of British colonialism and the impact it has on the lives of the Burmese people. Flory’s interactions with the local Burmese community, particularly with his friend Dr. Veraswami, help him to see the world from a different perspective and challenge his preconceived notions about race and culture.

The theme of identity is also explored through the character of Elizabeth Lackersteen, Flory’s love interest. Elizabeth struggles with her own identity as a British woman living in Burma. She is torn between her desire to conform to the expectations of British society and her attraction to the exoticism of Burmese culture. Her journey of self-discovery leads her to question the rigid social norms of British colonial society and to embrace her own individuality.

Overall, the themes of identity and self-discovery in Burmese Days highlight the complexities of living in a foreign land and the challenges of reconciling one’s own identity with the expectations of society. Orwell’s exploration of these themes adds depth and nuance to the novel, making it a thought-provoking and engaging read.

Love and Relationships

In Burmese Days, George Orwell explores the complexities of love and relationships in a colonial setting. The novel portrays the struggles of the British colonizers and their relationships with the Burmese people. The main character, John Flory, falls in love with a Burmese woman named Ma Hla May, but their relationship is hindered by the societal norms and prejudices of the time. The novel also depicts the toxic relationships between the British colonizers, who are often driven by their own selfish desires and ambitions. Orwell’s portrayal of love and relationships in Burmese Days highlights the power dynamics and cultural clashes that existed during the colonial era.

Class and Social Hierarchy

In Burmese Days, George Orwell explores the theme of class and social hierarchy in colonial Burma. The novel portrays the rigid social structure of the time, where the British colonial rulers held the highest positions of power and authority, while the native Burmese were relegated to lower positions in society. The novel also highlights the divisions within the British community, with the upper-class British expatriates looking down upon their lower-class counterparts. Through the character of John Flory, Orwell shows the struggles of a middle-class British man who is caught between the two worlds and is unable to fit in either. The novel also exposes the hypocrisy of the British colonial system, where the rulers claim to be bringing civilization and progress to the natives, while in reality, they exploit and oppress them. Overall, Burmese Days is a powerful critique of the social and political structures of colonial Burma, and a reminder of the enduring legacy of imperialism and its impact on societies around the world.

Religion and Spirituality

In Burmese Days, George Orwell explores the themes of religion and spirituality through the character of U Po Kyin. U Po Kyin is a corrupt Burmese magistrate who uses his position to gain power and wealth. Despite his immoral actions, U Po Kyin is deeply religious and believes that his good deeds will outweigh his bad deeds in the afterlife. This belief in karma and reincarnation is a central aspect of Burmese spirituality and is reflected in the novel’s portrayal of Burmese culture. Additionally, Orwell uses the character of Dr. Veraswami, a Hindu doctor, to highlight the differences between Western and Eastern spirituality. Dr. Veraswami’s belief in karma and the interconnectedness of all things is contrasted with the Western belief in individualism and personal responsibility. Through these characters and their beliefs, Orwell explores the complex relationship between religion, spirituality, and morality in colonial Burma.

Symbolism in Burmese Days

Symbolism plays a crucial role in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. The novel is set in British colonial Burma, and the symbols used in the book reflect the themes of imperialism, racism, and corruption. One of the most prominent symbols in the book is the elephant. The elephant represents the power and brutality of the British Empire. The British use the elephant for hunting and entertainment, and they see it as a symbol of their dominance over the Burmese people. However, the elephant also represents the destructive nature of imperialism. When the elephant goes on a rampage, it destroys everything in its path, just as the British Empire destroys the lives and cultures of the people it colonizes. Another important symbol in the book is the pagoda. The pagoda represents the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Burmese people. The British see the pagoda as a symbol of their own superiority, but they fail to understand its true significance. The pagoda also represents the resistance of the Burmese people to British imperialism. Despite the efforts of the British to destroy their culture, the Burmese people continue to hold on to their traditions and beliefs. Overall, the symbols in Burmese Days serve to highlight the destructive nature of imperialism and the resilience of the people who resist it.

The Elephant

The elephant is a prominent symbol in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. It represents the power and brutality of the British Empire, as well as the destructive nature of imperialism. The elephant is first introduced in the novel as a majestic creature, but as the story progresses, it becomes a tool for oppression and violence. The scene where the elephant is shot by the protagonist, Flory, is a pivotal moment in the novel. It represents Flory’s realization of the cruelty of imperialism and his own complicity in it. The elephant’s death also symbolizes the destruction of Burmese culture and the loss of innocence. Overall, the elephant serves as a powerful symbol of the destructive nature of imperialism and the need for resistance against it.

The Club

The Club is a central location in George Orwell’s Burmese Days, serving as a symbol of the British colonial power and the exclusivity of the ruling class. The Club is a place where the British officials gather to socialize, drink, and play games, while the native Burmese are not allowed to enter. The Club represents the segregation and discrimination that existed during the colonial era, where the British considered themselves superior to the native population. The Club also serves as a microcosm of the larger society, where the British officials use their power to maintain their status and suppress any dissenting voices. The Club is a powerful symbol of the colonial mindset and the oppressive nature of the British rule in Burma.

The Flies

In George Orwell’s Burmese Days, the presence of flies is a recurring motif that serves to highlight the oppressive and stifling nature of colonialism. Throughout the novel, the characters are constantly swatting at and trying to avoid the flies that seem to be everywhere. This serves as a metaphor for the way in which the British colonizers are constantly hovering over and controlling the lives of the Burmese people. The flies also represent the decay and corruption that is inherent in the colonial system, as they are attracted to the filth and decay that is present in the town. Overall, the presence of the flies serves as a powerful symbol of the destructive and oppressive nature of colonialism, and highlights the need for change and reform in the system.

The Weather

The weather plays a significant role in George Orwell’s Burmese Days, reflecting the characters’ emotions and the political climate of the time. The oppressive heat and humidity of Burma’s monsoon season mirror the suffocating atmosphere of colonialism and the characters’ feelings of entrapment. The sudden storms and floods that ravage the countryside symbolize the destructive power of imperialism and the inevitable collapse of the colonial system. The weather also serves as a metaphor for the characters’ inner turmoil, as they struggle with their own desires and the expectations of society. Overall, the weather in Burmese Days is a powerful literary device that enhances the novel’s themes and symbolism.

The Landscape

The landscape in Burmese Days plays a significant role in the novel’s themes and symbolism. Orwell’s vivid descriptions of the Burmese jungle and the British colonial town of Kyauktada create a stark contrast between the two worlds. The jungle represents the untamed, natural world, while the town represents the artificial, oppressive world of colonialism. The jungle is also a symbol of freedom and escape for the characters, particularly for Flory, who finds solace in its beauty and isolation. The town, on the other hand, is a symbol of confinement and conformity, where the characters are forced to adhere to strict social norms and expectations. The landscape also reflects the power dynamics between the British colonizers and the Burmese natives. The British control the town and its resources, while the Burmese are relegated to the outskirts of society, living in poverty and struggling to survive. Overall, the landscape in Burmese Days serves as a powerful tool for Orwell to explore the themes of imperialism, oppression, and freedom.

Character Analysis

One of the most intriguing characters in George Orwell’s Burmese Days is John Flory. Flory is a British timber merchant who has lived in Burma for several years. He is a complex character who struggles with his identity and his place in society. On one hand, Flory is sympathetic to the Burmese people and their culture. He speaks their language and has even fallen in love with a Burmese woman named Ma Hla May. On the other hand, Flory is a product of British colonialism and is deeply ingrained in the racist attitudes of his fellow Europeans. He is torn between his loyalty to his own people and his desire to do what is right. Throughout the novel, Flory’s character is tested as he navigates the complex social and political landscape of colonial Burma. His struggles highlight the themes of identity, loyalty, and morality that are central to the novel.

John Flory

John Flory is one of the central characters in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. He is a British timber merchant who has lived in Burma for several years. Flory is a complex character who struggles with his identity and his place in Burmese society. He is sympathetic to the Burmese people and their culture, but he is also aware of the racism and imperialism that permeate British colonialism. Flory is a lonely figure who is unable to connect with his fellow Europeans in Burma. He is an outsider who is caught between two worlds, and this tension is a central theme in the novel. Flory’s story is a poignant reminder of the human cost of imperialism and the struggle for identity in a colonial context.

Dr. Veraswami

Dr. Veraswami is a prominent character in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. He is a respected Indian doctor who is friends with the main character, John Flory. Dr. Veraswami is a symbol of the struggle for equality and justice in colonial Burma. He is constantly fighting against the discrimination and racism that he faces as an Indian in a British-dominated society. Despite his education and accomplishments, Dr. Veraswami is still seen as inferior by the British officials and is denied the recognition and respect he deserves. His character highlights the theme of imperialism and the negative effects it has on both the colonized and the colonizers. Through Dr. Veraswami, Orwell shows the reader the harsh reality of colonialism and the need for social justice and equality.

U Po Kyin

U Po Kyin is one of the most complex and intriguing characters in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. He is a corrupt magistrate who is obsessed with power and status, and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. U Po Kyin is a symbol of the corruption and decay that is rampant in colonial Burma, and his actions reflect the larger themes of the novel.

U Po Kyin is a master manipulator who uses his position of authority to exploit the people around him. He is a skilled liar and a schemer, and he is not above using violence to get what he wants. U Po Kyin’s obsession with power is fueled by his desire to be accepted by the British colonizers, and he will do anything to gain their approval.

U Po Kyin’s character is also a symbol of the larger issues of race and class in colonial Burma. He is a member of the Burmese elite, but he is not accepted by the British colonizers because of his race. U Po Kyin’s desire for power and status is a reflection of the larger struggle for equality and acceptance that was taking place in Burma at the time.

Overall, U Po Kyin is a complex and multifaceted character who embodies many of the themes and symbols of Burmese Days. His actions and motivations reflect the larger issues of corruption, power, race, and class that are central to the novel.

Elizabeth Lackersteen

Elizabeth Lackersteen is a complex character in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. She is the wife of the Deputy Commissioner, and her presence in the novel highlights the theme of colonialism and the power dynamics between the British and the Burmese. Elizabeth is portrayed as a woman who is unhappy with her life in Burma and is constantly seeking attention and validation from the men around her. She is also shown to be racist towards the Burmese people, which further emphasizes the oppressive nature of British colonialism. However, Elizabeth’s character also serves as a symbol of the limitations placed on women during this time period. She is trapped in a loveless marriage and is unable to pursue her own desires and ambitions. Overall, Elizabeth Lackersteen’s character adds depth and complexity to the themes explored in Burmese Days.

Ma Hla May

Ma Hla May is a complex character in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. She is a Burmese woman who is in a relationship with the protagonist, John Flory. Ma Hla May is portrayed as a beautiful and exotic woman who is caught between two worlds. She is torn between her love for Flory and her loyalty to her own people. Ma Hla May is a symbol of the cultural clash between the British colonizers and the Burmese people. She represents the struggle of the Burmese people to maintain their identity and culture in the face of British imperialism. Ma Hla May’s character is also a commentary on the role of women in Burmese society. She is a victim of the patriarchal society in which she lives, and her fate is ultimately determined by the men around her. Overall, Ma Hla May is a complex and multi-dimensional character who embodies many of the themes and symbols in Burmese Days.

Orwell’s Writing Style

Orwell’s writing style in Burmese Days is characterized by its simplicity and clarity. He uses straightforward language to convey complex ideas and themes, making his work accessible to a wide audience. Additionally, Orwell’s use of vivid imagery and descriptive language creates a vivid picture of the setting and characters, allowing readers to fully immerse themselves in the story. Overall, Orwell’s writing style in Burmese Days is a testament to his skill as a writer and his ability to convey important messages through his work.

Narrative Structure

The narrative structure of Burmese Days is a crucial aspect of the novel’s success in conveying its themes and symbolism. Orwell employs a linear, chronological structure that follows the experiences of the protagonist, John Flory, as he navigates the complexities of colonial life in Burma. This structure allows for a clear progression of events and character development, as Flory’s relationships with the other characters and his own beliefs and values are tested and challenged. Additionally, Orwell uses flashbacks and memories to provide insight into Flory’s past and motivations, adding depth and complexity to his character. Overall, the narrative structure of Burmese Days effectively supports the novel’s exploration of themes such as imperialism, racism, and the struggle for individual identity in a society dominated by oppressive systems of power.

Language and Tone

In Burmese Days, George Orwell uses language and tone to convey the themes and symbolism of the novel. The language used in the novel is often descriptive and vivid, allowing the reader to visualize the setting and characters. The tone of the novel is often critical and satirical, highlighting the flaws and injustices of British colonialism in Burma. Orwell’s use of language and tone effectively conveys the themes of imperialism, racism, and corruption in the novel. Through his writing, Orwell encourages readers to question the morality of colonialism and the impact it has on both the colonizers and the colonized.

Imagery and Symbolism

Imagery and symbolism play a significant role in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. The novel is filled with vivid descriptions of the landscape, the people, and the culture of colonial Burma. Orwell uses these images to create a sense of place and to convey the themes of the novel. One of the most prominent symbols in the novel is the elephant. The elephant represents the power and brutality of the British Empire, as well as the corruption and decay of the colonial system. The elephant is also a symbol of the natural world, which is being destroyed by the forces of imperialism. Another important symbol in the novel is the pagoda. The pagoda represents the spiritual and cultural heritage of Burma, which is being threatened by the forces of colonialism. The pagoda is also a symbol of the Burmese people’s resistance to British rule, as it is a place of worship and a symbol of their identity. Overall, the imagery and symbolism in Burmese Days help to create a powerful and evocative portrait of colonial Burma, and to explore the complex themes of power, identity, and resistance.

Social Commentary

In Burmese Days, George Orwell explores the themes of imperialism, racism, and corruption in colonial Burma. Through his vivid descriptions of the British colonial society and the Burmese natives, Orwell provides a scathing social commentary on the oppressive nature of imperialism and the damaging effects it has on both the colonizers and the colonized. The novel also highlights the pervasive racism that existed during the colonial era, as the British characters view the Burmese as inferior and treat them with disdain and cruelty. Additionally, Orwell exposes the corruption and hypocrisy that permeated the colonial administration, as the British officials engage in bribery, nepotism, and other unethical practices to maintain their power and privilege. Overall, Burmese Days is a powerful critique of imperialism and a reminder of the devastating consequences of colonialism on both the oppressors and the oppressed.

Historical Context

In order to fully understand the themes and symbolism present in George Orwell’s Burmese Days, it is important to consider the historical context in which the novel was written. The novel is set in the 1920s, during the time of British colonial rule in Burma. Orwell himself served as a police officer in Burma during this time, and his experiences undoubtedly influenced the writing of the novel.

At the time, Burma was considered a valuable colony for the British Empire, due to its rich natural resources and strategic location. However, the colonial administration was marked by racism, exploitation, and violence towards the Burmese people. Orwell’s novel explores these themes through the character of John Flory, a white British man who is disillusioned with the colonial system and sympathetic towards the Burmese people.

Furthermore, the novel was written during a time of political upheaval in Burma. In 1920, a nationalist movement emerged in Burma, calling for independence from British rule. This movement would eventually lead to Burma’s independence in 1948. Orwell’s novel can be seen as a critique of British colonialism and an exploration of the tensions between colonizers and colonized peoples.

Overall, understanding the historical context of Burmese Days is crucial for fully appreciating the themes and symbolism present in the novel. Orwell’s experiences in Burma and the political climate of the time provide important insights into the novel’s critique of colonialism and exploration of power dynamics.

The British Empire in Burma

The British Empire in Burma played a significant role in shaping the country’s history and culture. Burma was a British colony from 1824 to 1948, and during this time, the British implemented policies that had a lasting impact on the country. One of the most significant policies was the divide and rule strategy, which pitted different ethnic groups against each other, leading to long-standing tensions that still exist today. The British also introduced modern infrastructure and education systems, but these were primarily designed to serve the interests of the colonial administration rather than the local population. George Orwell’s Burmese Days provides a scathing critique of British colonialism in Burma, highlighting the corruption, racism, and exploitation that characterized the colonial period. Through his portrayal of characters like Flory and U Po Kyin, Orwell exposes the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the British Empire in Burma, and the devastating impact it had on the country and its people.

The Indian Civil Service

The Indian Civil Service played a significant role in the colonial administration of Burma during the time period in which George Orwell’s Burmese Days is set. The ICS was a prestigious and highly selective organization that recruited and trained British officials to govern India and its territories. Many of these officials were sent to Burma, where they held positions of power and authority over the local population. The ICS was known for its strict adherence to British values and customs, which often clashed with the cultural traditions of the Burmese people. This tension is reflected in Orwell’s novel, which portrays the ICS as a corrupt and oppressive force that perpetuates colonialism and imperialism in Burma. Through his characters and their interactions with the ICS, Orwell explores themes of power, identity, and cultural conflict, shedding light on the complex dynamics of colonialism in Southeast Asia.

The Burmese Independence Movement

The Burmese Independence Movement was a significant event in the history of Burma, which ultimately led to the country’s independence from British colonial rule. The movement was initiated by a group of Burmese nationalists who were determined to free their country from the clutches of British imperialism. The movement gained momentum in the early 20th century, and several political parties were formed to fight for Burma’s independence. The most prominent among them was the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), which was led by Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. The AFPFL played a crucial role in negotiating Burma’s independence from Britain, which was finally achieved in 1948. The Burmese Independence Movement is a significant theme in George Orwell’s Burmese Days, which portrays the struggles of the Burmese people against British colonialism. The novel highlights the injustices and inequalities that existed in colonial Burma and the impact of imperialism on the lives of ordinary people. Through the characters of Flory, Dr. Veraswami, and U Po Kyin, Orwell explores the complexities of race, class, and power in colonial Burma and the role of the Burmese Independence Movement in shaping the country’s future.

Relevance Today

The themes and symbolism explored in George Orwell’s Burmese Days are still relevant today. The novel delves into issues of imperialism, racism, and corruption, which are still prevalent in many parts of the world. The portrayal of the British colonial rule in Burma sheds light on the negative impact of imperialism on the colonized people. The novel also highlights the discrimination faced by the native Burmese people at the hands of the British colonizers. These themes are still relevant today, as many countries continue to struggle with the legacy of colonialism and its impact on their societies. Additionally, the novel’s exploration of corruption and abuse of power is still relevant today, as many governments and institutions continue to be plagued by these issues. Overall, Burmese Days remains a powerful commentary on the human condition and the impact of power dynamics on society.

Colonialism and Postcolonialism

Colonialism and Postcolonialism are two major themes explored in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. The novel is set in the British colony of Burma during the 1920s, a time when the British Empire was at its peak. Orwell’s portrayal of the colonial society in Burma is a scathing critique of the British colonial system and its impact on the native population. The novel also explores the postcolonial period in Burma, a time of political upheaval and social change. Through the characters and their experiences, Orwell highlights the complexities of colonialism and postcolonialism, and the lasting effects they have on both the colonizers and the colonized.