Critical Evaluation

Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907 and received honorary degrees from both Harvard and Oxford, but he was an extremely controversial writer, not only during his lifetime but also after it. Kipling was admired by such literary giants as Henry James, Mark Twain, and T. S. Eliot. However, many critics who praised Kipling felt the need to preface their comments with an explanation or an apology; Ernest Hemingway commented that he liked “the good Kipling.” The “bad” Kipling is seen as the defender of British imperialism who supported oppressors against native populations, espoused the idea of racial superiority, and remained casually unaware of the value of the cultures the British Empire dismissed and dominated. Remarkably, Kipling manages to inspire great intensity of feeling long after that empire faded. Although Kim is not the most controversial of his works, it received widely disparate evaluations, both when it was first published in 1901 and in later criticism. It is perceived by some as a paternalistic, a stereotypical, and an unrealistic picture of India, whereas others find it a rich, sympathetic portrayal.

Kim is a complex book. It has elements of a boys’ novel of adventure, a spy story, and a picaresque tale. Kipling himself once called Kim plotless. On a more serious level, it can be seen as a tale of initiation, a search for being and belonging, a quest. Because Kipling spent his first five years in Bombay, a time of great happiness for him, followed by six years of misery in England, where he was placed in a rigid, abusive household that he later described as the House of Desolation, Kim also has been viewed as a personal fantasy and a creation of a lost childhood idyll.

Setting is extremely important in Kim. The India that Kipling portrays stretches from Benares in the middle of the Indian peninsula to the Punjab and the Himalayas in the north. The story begins in Lahore with Kim sitting on the Zam-Zammah, the great gun that controls the north. The opening paragraphs introduce both India and the realities of the British presence there. In spite of the fact that Kim “consorted on terms of perfect equality with the street boys of the bazaar,” he felt free to kick one of his companions off the gun “since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English.”...

(The entire section is 967 words.)