During my travels in Asia and as an English Professor in South Korea, I was a member of an expatriate community consisting largely of Australians, British citizens, Canadians, and Americans, who were teaching and traveling in Asia for a variety of reasons, ranging from the desire to live through a valuable cultural and international experience to considerations of income and the simple availability of jobs. Understanding foreign travel to be an important stage in the education of any well rounded academic, I made the most of my experience through careful observation of both the Asian natives and the expatriates I came into contact with, and indeed the entire experience turned out to be one of the most valuable in my academic career.
More often then I wanted to however, I came into contact with a special type of expatriate whom I believe the now deceased anthropologist Victor Turner would characterize as a liminal being. According to Turner a liminal being is one caught or trapped in between social worlds, states, or stages; a person stuck at the crossroads where distinct social worlds converge and then diverge, leaving the liminal being unable to entirely leave or graduate from the state which is the past while also being denied admission to the new state which consists of a desired for or hoped for future (Weber 529 and Turner 151). The expatriate trapped in the liminal state is to both the state of the past and the state of the future an outsider living on the margins of the social community of either state or stage, and hence unable to achieve a desired union, or in Turner’s terminology, communitas, with either the world of the abandoned home or the imperfectly adopted foreign home.
My interest in the problematic nature of the liminal figure’s existential struggle and search for a grounded place one can call home, led me to study the book which I believe is a classic study of the expatriate’s condition of homelessness, George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Also drawn to Orwell’s fiction because he was one of the 20th Century’s most political novelists, I read Burmese Days searching for parallels between the expatriate British community of 1930s Burma under the British Empire and my own observations of the liminal expatriates I knew and befriended in South Korea.
My writings and reflections concerning expatriates living in South Korea can be found elsewhere in my e-book, Adoration of the Korean: Expatriate Tales Made in Korea, available at http://www.andycrown.net . In this essay I will focus on Burmese Days as a study of an expatriate community, and more specifically on the problematic homelessness of the novel’s central character John Flory. I will argue that John Flory is a liminal figure whose marginality in Britain and tragic incapacity to achieve communitas with either his adopted Burmese home or his own Britishness, as symbolized by his failed attempts to marry the British Elizabeth Lackersteen, parallel the incapacity of the British Empire to transform the native people of Burma towards Britishness. Even while Flory as a central figure in the upper Burmese town of Kyanktada represents Britain as the Metripole or center of the culture of Empire, Flory remains tragically on the margins, an outsider to communitas, unable to find union with his home in England or his home abroad, just as the British Empire was unable to secure Burma’s Britishness and overcome the momentum of thousands of years of native culture.
Our early encounters with Flory in the novel reveal his centrality to the town of Kyanktada, which is at once pivotal and deceptive as his position of authority and relative wealth compared to Burmese townspeople and servants is set against the backdrop of reports of nationalist rebellion which appear in the newspapers the expatriates read at the European club. Flory has servants, cooks, a large house in the center of town, and a native lover whom he first appears to control, until we later learn that it is really she who controls his fate as she destroys any possibility of a successful relationship for Flory with Elizabeth Lackersteen when she makes a scene revealing the depth of her relationship with Flory to Elizabeth in front of the British community’s church. Flory’s control of this spurned lover, Ma Hla May, is as tenuous as the British control of their empire in Burma since neither Flory nor the British authorities can completely subdue their respective cases of native rebellion, although they both can do their best to sweep under the rug the inescapable problems connected to their rulership with temporary solutions. Flory unsuccessfully attempts to buy off Ma Hla May and silence her, just as the British authorities are unable to prevent the occasional murder of their compatriots or appease or entirely subdue the rebels, even if the rebels are in reality no match for the British imperial forces.
Flory is the central figure in his home where native Burmese servants wait upon him and disapprove of his treatment of Ma Hla May. While allowing himself to become involved with a Burmese lover and for a time enjoy the corruption she represents as a personification of the moral laxity of tropical environs, Flory believes he can overcome his brief period of “going native” by asserting his Britishness in his refusal to see Ma Hla May as anything other than a sex partner less desirable than the British Elizabeth Lackersteen. Flory attempts to appease the ruined Burmese girl whose ruin he is responsible for, and who becomes a troublesome reminder of the impossibility of his permanent union with Burma, with gifts and cash payments. The racially infused social mores of the British Empire prevent even the sensitive Flory, with his fondness for Burmese culture and his Indian friend Dr, Veraswami, from ever seeing Ma Hla May as a serious lover, and of course never as a potential wife since interracial marriage would have been all but impossible at the time.
The manner in which Flory used Ma Hla May reveals his in-between nature and struggle with his Britishness. He is a good enough man at first not to see himself as above a relationship with a foreigner, but as the novel proceeds and her demands upon him become more incessant, he becomes increasingly mean and cruel towards her, which represents his acknowledgement of the social distance between himself and a native woman and the impossibility of an ethically responsible relationship between the two lovers, a statement about the racial gap between the British Flory and the Burmese Ma Hla May which parallels the essential impossibility of an ethical relationship between one of the world’s greatest democracies Great Britain, and her subordinates within the empire.
Flory’s fondness for Burmese culture and his good natured tolerance enable him to befriend the Indian doctor Veraswami with whom he enjoys intellectual conversation absent at the European club. Although he prefers the company of the Indian doctor to that of the offensive and racist Ellis, Flory is obligated socially to spend time in the environment of the club where the banality and racist banter of Ellis and the other Europeans seriously disturbs him. While in a very important way Flory detests the club, he feels a sense of obligation to the club and its members, evidence of what George Woodcock has called the garrison mentality of the sahibs or British administrators of empire living in India and Burma (94 and 105). Unable to obtain membership in the club for his Indian friend due in large part to the racism of the other members (and membership in the club being the only thing which could have protected Dr. Veraswami from ruin by the scheming magistrate U Po Kyin) it is nonetheless Flory, along with Veraswami, who defends the “garrison” or club from destruction in a near riot plotted by the cunning and duplicitous U Pyo Kin. This heroic defense of his British compatriots and their club wins back the favor of Flory’s love Elizabeth Lackersteen, opening up the possibility of communitas for Flory as a British man in union with a British woman. Yet in the end Elizabeth rejects Flory for a second time in spite of his heroism, precisely because she believes Flory’s relationship with Ma Hla May has tainted him and corrupted him beyond repair. Flory is too British for a happy union with Ma Hla May, and not British enough for union with Elizabeth precisely because he allowed himself to become involved with and corrupted by a native woman.
When we learn of Flory’s youth in England before he becomes an expatriate, we can see clearly how there is a sense of determinism to Flory’s liminality in the accident of his hideous birthmark. This facial discoloration forever causes him great anxiety and concern since he is forced to hide it from the view of others by awkwardly and painfully averting his face in conversation. Flory is constantly uncomfortable with himself and uncomfortable socially in the presence of others, a man marred and tainted by the accident of birth, just as the liminal expatriates who attempt to escape their failures at home by fleeing to a foreign land are marred or tainted by some tremendous disappointment in life. As Mark Twain once wrote, when a man experiences a tremendous failure or disappointment in life he either kills himself or travels. Flory’s disappointments begin early in his youth when his birthmark makes him an outcast among the competitive boys at the boarding school. Unable to acquire a suitable position in England upon the completion of his studies he finds his career in a distant outpost of the British empire, serving his country and King, driven by an inner moral sense to do so honorably in an ethically responsible manner, but unable to do so due to the internal corruption inherent in the nature of empire and the relationship between ruler and ruled, as exemplified by Flory’s affair with Ma Hla May and his inability to overcome the racism of the club and gain admission for his friend Veraswami. Flory’s anxiety and depression, and eventual suicide in his adopted Burmese home results in part from the problematic nature of his existential struggle for a place he can embrace wholeheartedly as his home, a grounded place which will enable him to achieve communitas and live without the discomfort of his shame which originates with his birthmark but becomes much larger and significant in his recognition of the morally questionable nature of empire and his own position as one both outside the Burmese community and the community of the British expatriates in Kyanktada.
The introduction of Elizabeth Lackersteen into the novel presents Flory with an opportunity to embrace his Britishness and assert his connection to England as his true home even while he and his newfound love find themselves in the midst of the Burmese jungle. Elizabeth, the niece of the memsahib Mrs. Lackersteen (whose husband, Elizabeth’s uncle makes sexual advances towards Elizabeth) is far from the ideal mate for the intellectual and sensitive Flory. Disillusioned with the pursuit of art and intellect due to her mother’s failed attempts to succeed as an artist in Paris, Elizabeth has no patience for books, poetry, or intellectual pursuits. She prefers hunting and leaves Flory the first time for the masculine and athletic polo player and military man, Verrall. Verrall loves only polo, and horses, and sport, and so he leaves Elizabeth without explanation or farewell, having used her and damaged her reputation. Verrall and Elizabeth are shallow compared to Flory whose friendship with Veraswami is evidence of some depth in his ability to rise above the shallow, if defensive, racism of the garrison mentality. Yet Elizabeth urged on by Mrs. Lackersteen, and symbolically England, rejects Flory and his sensitivity in favor of the athletic polo player. The ability of Verrall to escape and elude all dishonor and taint in spite of his dishonorable behavior is a comment on the manner in which social class determinism helps to decide Flory’s fate. As the son of wealth and privilege, Verrall may simply leave with his majestic horses on a train and he escapes all responsibility towards Elizabeth. (Neither apparently is he bothered about not paying his debts which he believes his family’s position will somehow take care of). Flory on the other hand, as a man emergent from the struggling middle class can not escape the taint of his relationship with Ma Hla May, who hounds him demanding compensation for the sacrifice of her innocence, and who in the end is responsible for the second time Elizabeth leaves Flory when she makes a public scene demanding to be recognized and compensated as Flory’s lover. Flory does not escape his impropriety the way Verrall does because his social class position is not as privileged as Verrall’s, and so he loses Elizabeth and his connection to England. Indeed, the scene in which Flory suffers his dishonor and loss of Elizabeth occurs in a church, which again represents what there is of England asserting herself in the jungle, and so Flory loses not just the love of Elizabeth but also the respect of the entire expatriate community of Kyanktada.
Flory’s pain, separation from love and community, and his search for belonging and acceptance by his community and his love finally come to an end when he kills himself at the end of the novel. This death marks the end of his failure to reach communitas in this world, and is a comment on the importance to Flory of his search for a grounded place since Flory commits suicide at home in his own bedroom. The character John Flory was perhaps on one level an unfortunate loser whose suicide stemmed from his torn heart and the loss of his love Elizabeth which was the last of many failures in his troubled life. But in a larger and more important sense what Flory has lost, and indeed he has never found, was much more important than Elizabeth. This was a satisfying union with a trusted element of his own nature, whether as a true British gentleman intellect, or as an expatriate admirer of native culture who unashamedly has “gone native”, a union and unity with an element of self that would have sustained him through the difficulties of his expatriate experience. This unity with one’s hoped for inner nature is only achieved through communitas with important others who have the power to assist an individual to reach a state of peace with the self through their friendship, love, and community. The unfortunate Flory, as an outsider to communitas could not reach this state of peace permanently without the assistance of others he longed to commune with, just as a people ruled by an outside power are never at peace.
Meanwhile in today’s Burma, now called Myanmar, where the search for peace continues by courageous monks who object to the rule of the dictatorial military regime, the struggle for unity, wholeness, acceptance, and completeness continues by those who desire social union with the other members of their community as a prerequisite on the path towards the contentment with the self and the inner peace that sustains a fulfilled and happy life even in the midst of a deeply troubled world.
Crown, Andrew. Adoration of the Korean: Expatriate Tales Made in Korea. 2004-2007.<http://www.andycrown.net>.
Orwell, George. Burmese Days. New York: Harcourt, 1934 & 1962.
Turner, Victor. “Symbolic Studies.” Annual Review of Anthropology 4 (1975): 145-161.
Weber, Donald. “From Limen to Border: A Meditation on the Legacy of Victor Turner for American Cultural Studies.” American Quarterly 47.3 (1995): 525-536.
Woodcock, George. “A Distant and A Deadly Shore: Notes on the Literature of the Sahibs.” Pacific Affairs 46.1 (1973): 94-110.