Rudyard Kipling Short Fiction Analysis
Many of Rudyard Kipling’s earliest short stories are set in the India of his early childhood years in Bombay and his newspaper days in Lahore. The intervening years at school in England had perhaps increased his sensitivity to the exotic Indian locale and British imperial presence. Kipling was a voracious reader of English, French, and American writers, trained by his newspaper experience in the virtues of conciseness and detail. His art arrived almost fully revealed in his earliest works. Kipling focused, however, not on the glories and conquests of empire but on the lives—work and activities, passions and emotions—of ordinary people responding to what were often extraordinary or inexplicable events. Love, especially doomed love, terror and the macabre, revenge and its consequences—these were the elements upon which his stories turned, even later when the settings were often English. His fame or notoriety was almost instantaneous, in part because of the locations and subject matter of the stories, because of his use of dialect in re-creating the voices of his nonestablishment characters, and because Kipling’s early writings appeared at a time when England and Western civilization as a whole were caught up in imperial dreams and rivalries.
A number of his stories pivot around the relations between men and women. Kipling has been called a misogynist, and often his characters, particularly those in the military, blame women for their own and others’ misfortunes. Most of his stories employ a male voice, and many critics agree that Kipling’s women are not often fully realized, particularly in his early years. The isolation of British soldiers and officials in India could itself explain these portrayals. There were boundaries in that esoteric environment—sexual, social, racial—that were violated only at a cost, but in Kipling’s stories they are crossed because his characters choose to do so or cannot help themselves.
“Beyond the Pale”
In “Beyond the Pale,” Christopher Trejago seduces and is seduced by a fifteen-year-old Hindu widow, Bisea, before misunderstanding and jealousy cause the lovers to terminate the relationship. Later, Trejago returns to their place of rendezvous only to discover that Bisea’s hands have been cut off at the wrists; at the instant of his discovery, he is attacked by a sharp object that injures his groin. One of Kipling’s shortest stories, it exhibits several of his continuing concerns. Love, passion, even understanding are often doomed, whether between man and woman or between British and Indians, while horror and unexpected shock can occur at any time and have lasting effects; revenge is a human quality. Stylistically, the story is rich in the descriptive detail of the dead-end alley where Bisea and Trejago first met but is enigmatic in explaining how the affair became known, leading to Bisea’s maiming. The story does not end with the assault on Trejago. As often with Kipling, there is a coda. Trejago is forced to carry on, with a slight limp and the remembrance of horror leading to sleepless nights.
Dangerous boundaries and illicit relationships also feature in his “Love-o’-Women,” the story of Larry Tighe, a gentleman who had enlisted as a common soldier, a gentleman-ranker who stepped down out of his proper world. Kipling often used the technique of a story-within-a-story, told by a narrator who may or may not be telling the total truth but whose own personality and perception are as important as the plot itself, accomplished most notably in “Mrs. Bathurst.” Here, in “Love-o’-Women,” the tale opens with Sergeant Raines shooting one of his own men, Corporal Mackie, who had seduced Mrs. Raines. After Raines’s trial, several soldiers ruminate on the dead Mackie’s fate. One of them, Terrence Mulvaney, comments that Mackie is the lucky one: He died quickly. He then tells the story of Tighe, who claimed the nickname of Love-o’-Women and made a career in the military of seducing daughters and wives, governesses and maids. When Tighe attempts to commit suicide by exposing his body to enemy fire during a battle, Mulvaney saves him and learns that Tighe deeply regrets what he has done, including his treatment and loss of his only real love, a woman named Egypt who turned to prostitution. Dying of syphilis, Tighe collapses in Egypt’s arms; she then shoots herself. Kipling did not necessarily believe in justice in the world, and, although reared a Christian, he was not orthodox in his religious beliefs but believed that there was a mortality for which one must answer. In “Love-o’-Women,” sin required confession, contrition, and penance.
“The Phantom ’Rickshaw”
Ghosts or phantoms also often played a role in Kipling’s stories. In “The Phantom ’Rickshaw,” Jack Pansay, an English official in India, begins a shipboard flirtation with a married woman, Mrs. Keith-Wessington, while returning from England. The affair continues in India, but Pansay grows tired of her, becoming engaged to someone else. Mrs. Wessington refuses to accept the termination of the romance and subsequently dies after losing control of her rickshaw while attempting to renew the affair. Soon, as a ghostly presence, she and her rickshaw begin to appear to Pansay, and feeling that his rejection had killed her, he himself sinks into decline. Although his doctor believes that his illness is merely the result of overwork, Pansay believes otherwise: His death is the payment required for his treatment of Mrs. Wessington.
“The Wish House”
From the beginning of his literary career, Kipling was considered to be a master in the use of dialect. Mulvaney’s telling of Tighe’s tale was rendered in an Irish dialect. In Kipling’s Indian stories, Mulvaney’s Irish was joined by characters speaking London Cockney, Yorkshire in northern England, and others. In many of his later stories, Kipling incorporated various English dialects, such as the Sussex dialect spoken by Grace Ashcroft and Liz Fettley in “The Wish House.” He generally used dialect when portraying the speech of persons from the undereducated classes or foreigners—persons different from his middle-class readers—and his treatment is often successful, even though some critics have claimed that his dialect re-creations were not entirely accurate. It has also been argued that, at times, the use of dialect gets in the way of the reading and understanding of the story itself, although this is more true of his early stories than his later ones.
“The Brushwood Boy”
On occasion, Kipling attempted to create the speaking style of the middle or upper classes. Here the use of words and phrases can be disconcerting to the reader, particularly after the diction and slang of an era has become dated. In “The Brushwood Boy,” George Cottar, the perfect public-school graduate and heroic young officer, resorts to “By Jove” on a regular basis. Possibly accurate then, it is artificial and stereotyped to a later generation. The same might be said about Kipling’s attempts to re-create the voices of children: Sometimes they are successful, sometimes not. If dialogue and dialect can deepen and extend the meaning and quality of a story, they can also date a story and detract from it.
In the 1890’s, after his marriage to Carrie and the birth of his three children, Kipling, although continuing to write short stories and novels for an adult audience, also turned his hand to works for children. Kipling had an empathetic feeling for children; some critics suggest that he never entirely outgrew his own childhood, with its traumas and rewards. The Jungle Book was published in 1894 and The Second Jungle Book the following year. The series of stories of the baby Mowgli reared by wolves in the jungle is perhaps the most enduring of Kipling’s many short-story collections. Several generations of children read about Father and Mother Wolf, the tiger Shere Khan, the sleepy bear Baloo, the panther Bagheera, and Kaa, the python. In later decades, other children came to know them through the Walt Disney cartoon feature, but there is a quality in the Kipling stories that did not translate fully to the screen. Like authors of other animal stories, Kipling anthropomorphized his creatures, and they exhibit recognizable human characteristics, but his jungle contains a quality of danger, of menace, which was not replicated in the Disney production.
“The King’s Ankus”
Kipling’s City of the Cold Lair in “The King’s Ankus,” inhabited only by the evil White Cobra, places the reader in a dark, dangerous, and claustrophobic building, a house of fear and death. A continuing motif in the stories involves references to the Law of the Jungle—Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest—an ideology very prominent in the imperialist years of the late nineteenth century. The villainous Shere Khan, Mowgli’s rival who is always eager to put Mowgli to death, belonged to that jungle world, while the Monkey-People as portrayed in “Kaa’s Hunting” and human beings, driven from their village in “Letting in the Jungle,” did not. Both species did not properly follow the law; both were cowardly, vindictive,...
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