Bumming Smokes in Paris and London

George Orwell’s Obsession with Tobacco

by Josh Indar

18 June 2009


The Burning Tip: Orwell’s Repudiation of Imperialism

Photo (partial) found on DNA Forums.org

Photo (partial) found on DNA Forums.org

The Burning Tip: Orwell’s Repudiation of Imperialism

Using characters’ smoking habits to define their ideals and intentions would become an Orwell trademark.

In his first novel, Burmese Days, Orwell repudiates the imperialism that his father worked so long to uphold. Orwell had at one time intended to follow in his father’s footsteps, taking a job as an imperial policeman in Burma. But the experience left him irreversibly jaded, and his politics took a decidedly leftward turn.

Smoking shows up early in Burmese Days, with the toad-like magistrate U Po Kyin, symbol of the corruptive tendencies inherent in colonial rule, ordering a servant to bring him a green Burmese cigar. “He never smoked English Tobacco, which he declared had no taste in it,” Orwell writes about Kyin.

Perhaps Kyin’s rejection of English tobacco is emblematic of his relationship with his English rulers. Kyin is a scheming and inherently evil man who uses his position as a colonial magistrate to enrich himself at the expense of his fellow Burmese. His rejection of English tobacco in favor of the homegrown variety reinforces a key theme of the novel; that colonial subjects can’t always be counted on to adopt the culture of their rulers. Even though he profits from British rule, Kyin neither accepts nor endorses it.

cover art

Burmese Days

George Orwell

US: Jan 2008

The next tobacco reference in Burmese Days dovetails with the first. In Chapter Three, protagonist John Flory visits his friend Dr. Veraswami, who symbolizes the decent colonial native, the one who tries—pathetically and in vain, as it turns out—to take on the airs of his colonial “betters”. Veraswami eagerly pushes English cigarettes on Flory, so the two can be comfortable while having “civilized conversation”.

The naïve and eager-to-please doctor represents the urge among some oppressed people to become more like their oppressors. While Kyin shows he is still culturally Burmese, Veraswami’s preference toward western cigarettes is in keeping with his character’s unashamed and futile desire to be white. Using characters’ smoking habits to define their ideals and intentions would become an Orwell trademark.

The first time the protagonist is seen smoking in Burmese Days is in an emotionally charged scene with Ma Hla May, Flory’s Burmese mistress, whom he mistreats horribly. Flory’s smoking in this scene speaks to the anxiety incurred by those whose job it is to oppress others. The scene personifies the main theme of the book: that imperial relationships have as much of a corrosive effect on the ruling class as they do on the subjugated masses.

This idea would continually resurface in Orwell’s writing, often expressed through the actions of deeply conflicted protagonists, men who seek freedom but find it constantly receding into a future ruled by thuggish bureaucracies and rigid social mores. Flory, a typically conflicted Orwell protagonist, dumps his Burmese mistress to woo a young Englishwoman. May’s first act of revenge is to steal Flory’s cigarette case.

Smoking in Burmese Days is kept to a minimum compared with Orwell’s other works at the time. While he wrote Burmese Days first, he initially had trouble getting it published. Writing careers are always crapshoots, but writing in the economically depressed ‘30s, especially when one had the prospect of getting a “real job”, was considered romantic at best, and stupid by most. But Orwell had a deep desire to write and an even deeper desire to atone for his family’s role in oppressing the impoverished people of Southeast Asia. Upon returning from Burma, Orwell set out to document and understand poverty in his own country.

At that time, smoking was an integral part of everyday life for millions of people, due in part to the invention of the industrially rolled cigarette, which appeared in Europe in the mid-19th century. What had once been a habit only affordable to aristocrats and wealthy merchants was now, thanks to the industrial revolution, a vice of equal opportunity. Smoking was enthusiastically taken up by soldiers and sailors, who brought the habit back with them after completing their tours of duty.

By the time World War I broke out in 1914, cigarettes were thought of as crucial supplies for soldiers, who were issued them by the millions on behalf of governments and charitable groups such as the Red Cross. Many of the soldiers who fought in World War I became addicted to tobacco for the first time on the battlefield, and since many of those soldiers came from, and would return to, lower class lives and vocations, it’s easy to see why so many of Orwell’s lower class characters smoked.

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