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.” This opening may imply a belief in the superiority of the British, but as the novel moves to describe the bazaar in detail, it becomes obvious that Kim and Kipling relish life on the Indian streets. After Kim meets the lama, they travel through India following the path of the railroad, the Grand Trunk Road. In chapters 3 and 4 particularly, Kipling presents vivid portraits of people from different castes and backgrounds; the reader is introduced to the sights, sounds, and smells of many different places and peoples on the road. This rich variety caused some critics to call India itself the main character of the novel.
Kim does more than present a fascinating, exotic picture of India; it also is a story about a boy’s search for identity. Kim, an Irish orphan, has taken on the characteristics of the Indian street boy. He seems an ideal hero for a boys’ adventure tale—clever, brave, able to overcome all odds, a perfect blend of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. He becomes more than just an adventure hero, however, because he faces not only physical and emotional challenges but also spiritual ones. His search begins after he meets the lama, a truly holy man, who desires to free himself completely from the evils and bonds of this world. Kipling represents the novel’s theme of the quest, the lama seeks salvation....
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