Essays and Criticism
Critical Essay on Kim
Much of Rudyard Kipling’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, focuses on India. Kipling— himself an Englishman born in Lahore, who lived and wrote during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the height of the British Empire— was known as one of the most vocal proponents of his time of British rule in India. His writing reflected the largely common belief held by Britain that the Western world had a moral obligation to provide the Eastern, nonwhite world with what they saw as their superior political and intellectual guidance. This complex of superiority was coupled with the largely held and promoted stereotypical portrayals of the Asiatic person as weak, immoral, and incapable of independent advancement. Of course, hand in hand with this sense of moral obligation to impose British government on the “dark races” of the world was the amassing of economic and global power for Britain itself, the largest empire the world had ever seen. Thus, the maintenance of the sense of moral obligation in India was a significant part of the ideology behind the economic welfare of the empire.
Kipling’s nonfiction work was bluntly polemical, but a pro-imperialist message pervades his fiction as well. Even though the novel Kim, with its vibrant descriptions of the geography and cultures of India, seems to be a celebration of the subcontinent and its native peoples, it nevertheless is structured as a pro-imperialist work. Specifically, Kipling creates a very particular portrayal of the political environment of India that pointedly ignores the growing conflict between the native Indians and their British rulers. His constructed misrepresentation of the Indian political environment serves to maintain the strength and validity of the British presence in India.
One of the most telling scenes in Kim is in chapter 3, when Kim and the Tibetan lama come upon an old soldier who had fought on the British side in The Great Mutiny of 1857. The mutiny was the first and one of the most violent uprisings of Indians against their colonizers, in which Hindu and Muslim soldiers, who vastly outnumbered their British superiors, stormed and took over the city of Delhi. It is recognized historically as a starting point for the division between Anglos and Indians and as a starting point for the push for Indian independence (which would come almost one hundred years later, in 1947). Edward Said writes in his introduction to Kim: “For the Indians, the Mutiny was a nationalist uprising against British rule, which uncompromisingly re-asserted itself despite abuses, exploitation and seemingly unheeded native complaint.” The British, on the other hand, saw the mutiny as an act of irrational and unwarranted aggression.
The language that Kipling uses to describe this mutiny is markedly from the British point of view, so it is significant that the account comes not from a British soldier but from an Indian:
A madness ate into all the Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil, but not past remedy if they had then held their hands. But they chose to kill the Sahibs’ wives and children. Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called them to most strict account.
The Indian soldier describes the cause of the mutiny as “madness” that made the soldiers turn against the officers. That Kipling characterizes an uprising based on resentment towards imperialist rule and the attempt to resist this rule as merely “madness” reduces the Indian nationalist cause to irrationality and, therefore, to meaninglessness. Because there is no rational reason for the uprising, the murder of officers—the most egregious act of disloyalty—is cast as “evil.” And while the murder of civilians, especially women and children, is deemed universally unacceptable, that the soldier chooses to focus on this aspect of the mutiny serves to further demonize the actions of the Indians and invalidate their nationalist cause and the reality of their discontent.
Furthermore, the Indian soldier frames the British in a pointedly paternalistic light in describing the British retaliation against the Indian mutineers: The Sahibs “called them to most strict account” for their actions. This particular choice of phrasing casts the governing British in a parental role; the British counterattack and squelching of the insurgency—and all of the brutality likely thereafter—is cast as a just punishment that brings the unruly back to their rightful order. And that rightful order, of course, is to remain the governed, rather than the governing. Through the language he gives the...
(The entire section is 1910 words.)