Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Man Who Would Be King” is, among Kipling’s stories, the one most reminiscent of Joseph Conrad; that is, although it is a typical Kipling adventure story, it seems to have more serious implications—much as does Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902)—than most of his other stories do. Moreover, it attempts to sustain these philosophical implications on the structure of a typical Kipling social parable about British imperialism in India, just as Heart of Darkness is about imperialism in Africa. Both stories embody a strange combination of the serious and the absurd and a subtle mixture of reality and dreamlike fantasy. Although “The Man Who Would Be King” does not contain the philosophical generalizations of Conrad’s story, nevertheless it should be seen as something more than merely an adventure story or a simple social parable.

The basic theme of “The Man Who Would Be King,” which undergirds the social theme of British imperialism, is that of the dichotomy between two different kinds of reality—the “realistic” realm of the journalist who deals with the everyday world of “real kings” and the fantastic, make-believe world of Dravot and Peachey, who create their own fantasy and then live in it. The clue to this basic theme of the reality of pretense is announced when the narrator first meets Dravot and Peachey, characteristically playing roles, for the two men play roles throughout, not only as newspaper...

(The entire section is 433 words.)