’s Burmese Days Essay, Research Paper
As a woman in the 20th Century, I feel the need to fit into certain molds that society chooses. Through the continued exposure to television, magazines, and other forms of media, I, along with others, feel the pressure to be what society wants me to be. For example, the media is not shy when revealing the ideal figure that they believe every woman should have. Indeed, 36-24-36 is a sign of our time, being portrayed everywhere from billboards to sitcoms. If a woman obtains a perfect figure, she feels good about herself, and society generally reflects it positively as well; studies have shown that overweight people are often mistreated while those of us who are beautiful are hired, given breaks, etc. However, when a woman loses the ideal, she could quite possibly be subject to many cruel comments concerning her weight. People judge her, wondering why she is not still thin. Although the above is a hypothetical situation, it is safe to conclude that it has occurred.
Consequently, the women in Burmese Days face the same kind of struggles. Their culture also puts certain expectations on them, which they are obligated to fulfill in one way or another. Stereotyped by society, Elizabeth, Mrs. Lackersteen, and Ma Hla May all face very real yet very different circumstances which seek not only to empower and reward them, but also to ruin them and cause problems.
Flory s mistress Ma Hla May fits very well into Burmese society until Flory dismisses her. Just like a woman today may be finally satisfied with being a size 6, Ma Hla May is content with the knowledge that Flory needs her to love. However, when he finally realizes that he cannot propose to Elizabeth with Ma Hla May still in the picture, he sends her away. Arriving in her village without Flory s benefits, her fellow natives look upon her as a cheap whore, being used by a white man. When she was with Flory, people saw it as an honor, but now they look upon her quite differently. There is Ma Hla May who thought herself cleverer than the rest of us. And behold! Her white man has treated her as they always do. (154)
Indeed, sleeping with Flory did empower Ma Hla May. It put her in a position above that of her fellow Burmese women. Although Ma Hla May did not have any higher standing with Europeans because of her position, it empowered her as an individual as well as among the group with whom she spent the majority of her time while she was away from Flory. That is, until she lost her standing and became less than even the lowest Burmese woman; she eventually ended up in a brothel after Flory takes his own life. (285)
Being a woman of color, Ma Hla May is at a loss in any European-run society during this time. Her race puts her in an inferior position. Not until 1920 did white women gain the right to vote in America, the supposed free country. That leaves little to say of the rights and privileges enjoyed by a native Burmese woman at the same time in history. By being not only Burmese, but also female, Ma Hla May s rights were crushed. Her only voice was that heard by Flory, and even he was not interested in what she had to say. He at best protected her and looked out for her best interest. However, when Elizabeth came into the picture, he was quick to dismiss her without a second thought, unknowingly taking from her any stature that she had gained with her village.
Being the first young, beautiful, European female that has arrived in Kyauktada for a long time, Elizabeth is already empowered from the moment she sets foot in her new surroundings. The fact that she is white puts her in a class far above the natives, just as the fact that she is unmarried puts her in a class different than that of the Englishmen at the club. Merely by choosing to travel to Burma, she elevates herself in society. She becomes the object of both Flory and Verrall s affection, as well as the breath of fresh air in the stifling Club where the same members have attended for years.
For Elizabeth, the colonial society in Burma offered something that every young woman at the time should have been thinking about a husband. Coming from France as a poor, unmarried girl, Elizabeth knowingly came to the colony keeping an eye out for a suitable beau. However, one problem of finding a suitable man is demonstrated when Verrall simply leaves her without so much as a goodbye. In order to find a proper husband, one must be able to keep him. Eventually marrying Mr. Macgregor after Flory s suicide, Elizabeth finds a new kind of power. No longer having the luxury of being pursued by various men and thus having power over them, she now has the ability to influence her husband of decisions that he may have to make.
Elizabeth also found a certain kind of liberation with Flory before she married Mr. Macgregor. Going shooting was something that women in Europe were sure not to do. Handling a gun or any other sort of male sport was seen as unladylike. However, across the sea in Burma, the rules were a bit different. Also being that Elizabeth was still young and looking for fun in life, no one in the colony objected to her outing, although some may have thought it a bit strange. The beaters halted in a group to watch they thought it queer and rather shocking to see a woman handle a gun. (166)
Mrs. Lackersteen, being the wife of one of the only white men in all of Kyauktada, also has a certain amount of power. Like Elizabeth, she is white, which gives her dominance over all the natives. It is also suggested that by being the wife of an esteemed European, she has influence on her husband s decisions. U Po Kyin had even sent one of his anonymous letters to Mrs. Lackersteen, for he knew the power of European women. (137) Indeed, even the dishonorable U Po Kyin himself confided in his wife, telling her of his evil plans. U Po Kyin usually let Ma Kin into his secrets sooner or later (135) Wives during this time, although not directly included in decision making, often made their presence felt in the only way they were able, by talking their opinions into their husbands.
Mrs. Lackersteen s comfort came in knowing that she would be well provided for, that she would live in the best possible conditions in Burma. She was also secure in her position of a white woman in a world of inferiors. Society offered her nothing more than a subordinate role at the club and tennis in the evenings. Nevertheless, she held the position of a European woman with all of the dignity that was expected. In fact, Ma Kin, the wife of U Po Kyin, looked upon the company of Mrs. Lackersteen and the other English ladies as some sort of dazzling prize. To have native women thinking of one s fellowship in this way is empowering. But the solitary reason for the natives feelings towards the Club members was the fact that they were white; color of skin gives power to people.
Altogether, the roles of the different women in Kyauktada differed because of age and color. Elizabeth, thanks to her European heritage, was honored. Because she was female as well, Flory and Verrall alike give her the best they have to offer in the best way they know how. Elizabeth receives very good treatment during her first few weeks in the jungle. In the same way, Mrs. Lackersteen, although older, shares the same privileges as Elizabeth. Already married, she still enjoys the luxuries of being white, European, and female. Although neither Elizabeth nor Mrs. Lackersteen have any formal affiliation with running the colony, there is the underlying suggestion that women do have the provocative ability to influence their husbands in current affairs. Both women should have felt confident that they would live the best life that Burma had to offer them until they passed away. On the other hand, being native, Ma Hla May was much less empowered. She was forced to retire to prostitution in her later years. In a way, along with forcing her into the brothel, Flory also disgraced her by dismissing her from his presence. Her humiliation when she returned to her village was deserved. What few rights Ma Hla May had were not taken into consideration at all. She was merely treated as a piece of property, to be discarded at will.
The women in Burmese Days were not necessarily aware of their positions. Like many women in today s culture, they merely saw what society gave them and then accepted it. Just as a woman today readily accepts the fact that she needs to have a perfect body, so do Elizabeth, Mrs. Lackersteen, and Ma Hla May accept their roles that the Burmese colony has put forth for them. None of them ever question whether they are being wronged or not. By today s standards, Ma Hla May was discriminated against, and Elizabeth was possibly taken advantage of. However, no one was there in the early 1900 s to call the shots and say what was right or wrong. We are all painful reminders that society and culture produce strangely unquestioning results.
Today, women of different races and ethnicities, of different religious backgrounds, and of different ages are finally seeing rights that they deserve. In history, women were often thought of as inferior, both mentally and physically. In today s changing times, one would seldom see the stereotypes of women shown in Burmese Days anywhere in America. However, sadly in many other parts of the world, everyday women are discriminated against; their rights are taken away by some nameless government. It is our own ignorance as a people that hinder us from seeing beyond racial and gender barriers.