Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Much of Kipling’s writing focuses on problems peculiar to and generated by British colonialism, and this story certainly fits that mold. Early in the narrative, Kipling tells his readers, “Now India is a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously—the mid-day sun always excepted. Too much work and too much energy kill a man just as effectively as too much assorted vice or too much drink.” The Boy cannot survive in India because he takes things too seriously. He cannot accept the indolence and the inefficiency that characterize service in India.

On the other hand, the Major and the narrator will survive because even in the face of The Boy’s gruesome death, they can laugh. They are not heartless, otherwise they would not think to spare The Boy’s family the grief of knowing that their son committed suicide. In Kipling’s presentation, the Major turns a deaf ear to those who criticize him for not bringing back The Boy’s body for a regimental burial on base. Kipling shows here a man who is at peace with himself, one who knows he has done what is best and who does not care what public opinion is regarding his action. He will certainly never repeat The Boy’s mistake even though he understands it and once goes so far as to say that he had gone through the same “Valley of the Shadow” as did The Boy.

The Boy is never given a name because Kipling emphasizes early in the story that in colonial India, if one man dies, he will be replaced in the eight hours between death and burial. He also points out at the end of the story that The Boy and his act will be forgotten before a fortnight has elapsed. Life here is impersonal, attachments ephemeral. Early in the story, Kipling writes that flirtations do not matter because one will not be in any one place for long.