Orwell’s first novel is not what you might expect from the guy who gave us Big Brother and Napoleon the Pig. To be sure there are villains in Burmese Days—indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find any character in the book who doesn’t fit that bill—but this isn’t a dystopian nightmare or an instructive allegory.
What we have instead is something like a soap opera (Burmese Days of Our Lives?) set amidst the waning days of the British Raj, with a cast of characters each more despicable than the last. Our protagonist, John Flory, an English timber merchant, is the closest one gets to a sympathetic character. He accurately describes his compatriots as “Dull boozing witless porkers!” though he can’t escape that same distinction himself; to say he’s less of a racist, misogynist coward than his fellows is still to acknowledge that he is in fact a rather unpleasant guy. Add to this such endearing personality traits as alcoholism and love of violence, and by the end of the book we’re left with no one to root for.
The bulk of the action of Burmese Days has no real action at all: we are at the European Club, where the dissipated and hateful English keep themselves entertained by drinking copious amounts of gin and whisky, and telling each other the same jokes and stories over and over (the theme always being how disgusting and awful the natives are—”Orientals” is the most polite appellation they use that I’ll bother to print here—compared to the godlike wisdom and patience of the English).
There is a plot, which revolves around an intrigue between two citizens of high standing; two local citizens, which is to say natives, which is to say their standing is roughly equivalent to that of a water buffalo. We also have an absurdly pathetic love story involving our protagonist, and toward the end of the novel we get some proper action (i.e. violence).
Burmese Days is a bit dry and the resolution and denouement are ultimately less than satisfying; but it is worth reading for Orwell enthusiasts or those who enjoy historical fiction. While this isn’t as stylistically or thematically brilliant as Orwell’s later work, it does have as its central thrust the idea that people are essentially shitty to one another, and that distinctions of class, race and wealth only make things worse (see: power/corruption, etc.). I see it as something like a warm-up for 1984 et al.; Orwell’s first-hand experience of the evils of totalitarian or imperialist governments (he was born in eastern India and served as a policeman in Burma) serves as his template for a not-so-subtle and vicious attack.