The Immutability of Social Code Steeped in Racism

in George Orwell’s Burmese Days

Becca Kendis

History 255, Section 003

Professor Mir

March 11, 2010

In his novel Burmese Days, George Orwell depicts a society in which racism is deeply entrenched in the European’s social code—an unofficial internal regulation of opinion and behavior within the British community in Burma. At the historical moment in which the story takes place, new laws have been implemented by the British government that regulate the behavior of colonial officials in an attempt to decrease racism. Throughout the novel, the tension between official governmental and unofficial societal regulation is obvious. Despite the resentment of most of the colonial officials towards the new laws, they prove to be no match for the powerful influence of social norms. However, as futile an attempt as these governmental regulations are to change society, the novel shows that the individual is even more powerless to enact social change. Orwell demonstrates that racism is too deeply embedded in the social code that unofficially governs the society, for any outside or inside forces to have a substantial impact or enact change.

Orwell reveals the origins of racism in colonial Burma and the true motives of colonialism through the character of Flory, a key tool in Orwell’s criticism of the social norms of the British colonial society. Orwell provides the reader with far more insight into Flory’s thoughts than those of the other characters, and the sympathetic tone suggests that Flory’s opinion mirrors Orwell’s own. During Flory’s friendly debate with Dr. Veraswami, he expresses his disgust with “the slimy white man’s burden humbug” and “the pukka sahib pose” (39). Orwell uses this scene to provide the reader with a basis of understanding corresponding with his own: racism was used as a means of justification during the development of colonialism, as it provided the British with a false objective—to raise Burmese society on the civilizational index—to conceal their true goal of monetary gain. These racist ideas have become so incredibly internalized that they are irremovably entrenched in the social code of the British in Burma. Orwell demonstrates this deep-seated internalization by portraying the incredible influence and power that the social code holds over the characters in the novel.

While the degree to which the social mandate impacts each character’s inner thoughts and opinions may vary, it invariably affects the characters’ behavior and actions. Ellis’ character exemplifies one extreme on the spectrum of influence. He has been influenced so greatly that his opinion corresponds completely with the opinion dictated by social code. In fact, his adherence to these beliefs is so strong that his sense of reality is distorted. For example, in the episode when Ellis blinds the native schoolboy with a stone, he falsely reports back to the Europeans that he has been attacked “without any provocation whatever” and was simply defending himself (243). Orwell makes a point of interjecting that “Ellis, to do him justice, probably believed this to be the truthful version of the story” (243). This statement reinforces that, despite the illegitimate origins of its racist ideas, social code can distort a man’s view of the world so much that he may lose touch with reality.

Other characters in the novel are influenced to a lesser degree in terms of their personal opinions, but normative social practice prohibits them from expressing any contradictory opinions and dictates their behavior. For this reason, some of the characters voice much more racist opinion than they actually hold, because it is the socially correct, or “loyal” thing to do. For example, Mr. Lackersteen “did not care and never had cared a damn for the British Raj, and he was as happy drinking with an Oriental as with a white man,” but he would always agree with a statement about the degeneracy of the natives, or some sort of punishment that should be imposed upon them (234). Macgregor also represents a more central position on the aforementioned spectrum. His opinion differs from social norm so much that he is “deeply fond” of Orientals, but still believes they should be given no freedom (30).

While Flory morally disagrees with the opinions and ideas dictated by social mandate, the pressure to comply with normative social practice still determines his actions. For the much of the novel Flory avoids argument by externally conceding to opinions that were in disagreement with his own. With complete understanding that Dr. Veraswami’s fate rests in becoming a member of the British Club, Flory signs his name on a document that says his friend should not be elected. Although Flory feels disgust with his own lack of courage, he condemns his friend because “refusal would have meant a row with Ellis and Westfield,” and he finds it “easier to insult his friend, knowing that his friend must hear of it” (63-4). Similarly, after receiving a defamatory anonymous letter with Dr. Veraswami as its subject, Flory decides to withhold it from his friend in compliance with the pukka sahib Precept that mandates Europeans “not to entangle oneself in ‘native quarrels’,” for to do so would result in loss of “prestige,” a concept of utmost importance within social coding (78-9).

Flory berates himself often for his cowardice in these situations. However, when he finally finds the courage and spirit within himself to verbally oppose the social code, these actions eventually lead to his tragic death. With Flory’s Character, Orwell succeeds in depicting the struggle of a man in colonial Burma whose conception of what is right goes against the accepted societal norms. Not to act makes Flory a coward, but acting only leads to his ruin, and doesn’t help Veraswami’s situation or change the Europeans’ perspective. This reinforces the incredible strength of the social mandate, as Orwell shows the utter powerlessness of the individual against this incredible social force.

The social code also has an incredible effect on the natives functioning within this colonial society. U Po Kyin states more than once that the reputation of any native could be ruined simply by suggesting his degeneracy or disloyalty to the Europeans. This ease of persuasion results from the racist assumption, embedded in the social code, that Orientals are born as ‘degenerate types.’ Furthermore, the importance of prestige, a key element of European social custom, trickles down into native society as well. Dr. Veraswami explains that the prestige of natives is based on their standing with the Europeans (149). His own friendship with Flory gives him much of the prestige that he enjoys. U Po Kyin’s ability to ruin him and everything he has worked for in life is based solely on his standing with the Europeans, not on whether or not the allegations against him are true. Therefore, in inter-native conflicts, prestige gained from favor with the Europeans could provide natives with a degree of immunity. Orwell proves the strength of the European social mandate once again by depicting its ability to infiltrate even native culture and corrupt its sense of law and order.

A common theme in the novel is the friction that occurs as a result of the British government’s new laws that attempt to regulate the behavior of British officials in order to decrease racism. The characters frequently express their frustration with these laws. According to Orwell, Westfield often complains about “the ruin of the Indian Empire through too much legality” (32). He is not, however, the only character who disapproves of the new laws. Ellis remains adamant about his belief in physical punishments such as bambooing, despite such tactics being prohibited by the so-called “kid-glove laws” (112). Even Macgregor openly expresses his distaste with being given orders from higher up, when explaining why they had to vote on the issue of electing a native for club membership.

While these laws may have been irritating to the European officials, it is obvious that they had no substantial effect on decreasing racism in society. First of all, the Europeans often choose to not follow the regulations when they do not agree with them. As previously stated, Macgregor is frustrated with his order to elect a native club-member. As such an election is decidedly unacceptable according to their social custom, he decides to put to a vote not who should be elected, but whether or not a native should be elected at all. Furthermore, European brutality against the natives was hardly put to an end. Since social code stated that Europeans automatically held a high level of prestige by nature, and natives definitively held none, Europeans could get away with not being prosecuted when they broke laws and killed or abused natives. This is exemplified when Maxwell shoots and kills a native after the hardly threatening rebellion has already been suppressed. It is also demonstrated when Ellis and Westfield encourage Verrall to choose any two natives to be hanged in retribution for Maxwell’s murder if the true culprits cannot be found. Verrall does in fact return with “two people who would presently be hanged for Maxwell’s murder;” Orwell’s tone implying that they very well may be innocent (256).

In conclusion, Orwell has succeeded in showing the overwhelming control that social code steeped in racism exercised over the European society in Burma. Racism began as a tool of justification for colonialism, but became internalized in society and entrenched in the unofficial social mandate that dictated their thoughts and actions. The strength of this ‘code’ is emphasized by its ability to permeate even the native culture. As a result of this strength, governmental laws, as well as individuals within the society who dare to speak against accepted social convention, are unable to create any significant degree of change. Orwell therefore shows that as long as colonialism exists in Burma, racism most likely will continue to exist as well.