The short story "The Man Who Would Be King" by Rudyard Kipling is narrated by a British journalist resembling Kipling himself. He meets two soldiers of fortune, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who share with him a plan they have for going to Kafiristan, a small country in...
The short story "The Man Who Would Be King" by Rudyard Kipling is narrated by a British journalist resembling Kipling himself. He meets two soldiers of fortune, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who share with him a plan they have for going to Kafiristan, a small country in a remote corner of present day Afghanistan, to subdue the people and become kings.
Later, Carnehan returns alone as a crippled beggar and tells the narrator that he and Dravot successfully overcame adversities, reached Kafiristan, and became godlike kings. However, Dravot decided to take a local girl as queen, and during the wedding, she bit him and he bled. The locals decided that they were not gods, killed Dravot, and tortured Carnehan before letting him go. To prove his story, he carries with him the head of Dravot with a crown of jewel-encrusted gold. Soon after, Carnehan dies in a poorhouse, and the crown cannot be found.
"The Man Who Would Be King" can be read as a parable of British imperialism in India. The two white men, Dravot and Carnehan, are so convinced of their superior strength and intellect that they journey into a far country to rule it and claim its riches. The British Raj, or British rule of India, began as a purely mercenary effort of the British East India Company, which was ruthless in asserting its dominance. Even when the East India Company's rule was transferred to the British Crown in 1858, the main motivation for the subjugation of the Indian people remained economic. Kipling famously cloaked imperialism within the guise of idealism in his poem "The White Man's Burden," but the fact remains that Britain's claim was based on a supposed sense of racial superiority rather than unselfish benevolence.
Dravot's downfall in the story comes about through the taking of a local wife. This goes against the tenets of imperialism as expressed by Kipling in "The White Man's Burden," in which he refers to locals as "new-caught sullen peoples, half devil and half child." In Kipling's opinion, it would not be acceptable for white men, supposedly divinely tasked to improve the lives of their inferiors, to interact in this manner with locals. This is sufficient reason for the downfall of Dravot and Carnehan and their punishment by the people that they sought to rule. So Kipling sees in Carnehan and Dravot's quest an imperialist mission that fails because of the weaknesses and lack of honor of the men involved.