Critical Essay on Kim

Kim and the Letter Writer, terracotta plaque made by John Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard Kipling, for the first edition of Kim in 1901

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...

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Orality in Kipling’s Kim

Recent studies of the oral or performative element in literature provide novel methods for understanding the work of Rudyard Kipling. In this essay, I shall review Kipling’s peculiar approach to the creative process, demonstrates its applications to Kim, and note some ways of modifying critical response to Kipling and perhaps other writers.

Everyone concedes Kipling’s exploitation of the visual possibilities of print. Many of his poems and pages of prose foreground the typesetter’s paraphernalia: dashes, leaders, apostrophes, quotation marks, exclamation marks, and uncommon capitalizations appear constantly. The word “telegraphic” is often used to describe his style. He was delighted to include his father’s illustrations to enhance the visual appeal of his books. Having mastered the journalist’s craft at an early age, he sensed the power and romance of highspeed presses and made print-technology serve his ends, so that critics often credit him with helping initiate the enhancement (or subversion) of literature by incorporating journalistic techniques.

But this conventional sense of Kipling’s procedure cannot be reconciled with his own statements. Late in life, he described his early efforts as a writer:

I made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye. There is no line in my verse or prose which has not been mouthed till the tongue has made all smooth, and memory, after many recitals, has mechanically skipped the grosser superfluities.

Here the emphasis is clearly on the acoustic element in his work, although he acknowledges the importance of visual and other sensory elements. His is an excellent example of writing that poses problems for readers in our century because, according to Walter Ong, literary criticism ignores auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile imagination and imageries. We are “addicted” to the visual—and thereby “impoverished.”

The importance of the oral-aural elements in Kipling can be demonstrated in a number of ways. He once admitted that “three generations of Methodist Preachers lie behind me—the pulpit streak will come out!” Probably the moralizing strain was foremost in his mind, but this is inseparable from the oral medium of evangelical, indeed of Christian, tradition. How this tradition affected Kipling can be witnessed in a negative and positive way by noting his childhood experiences, first in the House of Desolation, where fundamentalist piety took venomous forms, and second in the presence of his mother and his sisters, women with an uncommon “command of words” inherited directly from a Methodist environment.

Kipling spoke often of his “Daemon.” “My Daemon was with me in the Jungle Books, Kim, and both Puck books, and good care I took to walk delicately, lest he should withdraw . . . When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, obey.” In some sense, Kipling believed that he “heard” what to write and transmitted the message. To whom was he listening? Psychologists might say, “to his alter ego or subconscious;” but he also conversed about and read his work to his parents. Another hypothesis claims that it is small groups of orally bonded individuals who create all literature. Writers must listen and speak before they write. Until populations became too large, you simply asked an author or his acquaintances what he meant if his poem puzzled you. The coffeehouse or salon provided appropriate settings. Literary works existed within an oral network that obviated explication. When the network broke down, as it did at first between dominant critics and Wordsworth or Kipling or Faulkner, wild allegations began to fly; but the normal fabric of communication ordinarily restored itself and conversation resumed. Isolated writers such as Emily Dickinson or Kafka, who worked somewhat outside the network, remained enigmatic until critics brought them inside. In our century, local networks continue to function (for example, the Inklings at Oxford, the Black Mountain poets, the New York Review of Books coterie), but there is no general network, hence every author requires a biographer and dozens of academic explicators. This situation gives credence to the alternative hypothesis that books are made not from living language but from reading (or misreading) other books, which seems unsatisfactory when applied to Kipling, although he read widely all his life.

That Kipling chose isolation by listening to his Daemon and by using as a sounding board his parents rather than contemporary writers is confirmed in another way when he told Rider Haggard that “we are only telephone wires;” that is, we transmit messages rather than originating them. He amplified this by explaining that neither he nor Haggard actually wrote anything. “You didn’t write She you know; something wrote it through you!”

Given this assumption about the genesis of his fictions, we can understand why he confessed to writing not from notes but from memory. “I took down very few notes except of names, dates, and addresses. If a thing didn’t stay in my memory, I argued that it was hardly worth writing out.” Moreover, we can imagine why Kipling’s reading his tales aloud was such a compelling experience for the auditor. He became a rhapsode, as Plato would have it, disclosing messages to the souls of those who can hear rightly and respond beneficially. At the very end of his life, when he revised his work for the definitive Sussex and Burwash editions, the only significant change he made in the text of Kim was italicizing key words, evidently to guide the voice of his reader toward correct rhythms, accents, and intonations.

Perhaps this helps explain the violent reactions of readers to Kipling from the first. Of course, his imperial posturing and anti-intellectualism can account for the intelligentsia’s repudiation of his work; but the unique vehemence of this repudiation suggests that something in Kipling triggers extraordinary responses. Working by ear as well as by eye, he breaks into our consciousness in ways that prevent our keeping the text at arm’s length. Nietzsche called the ear “the organ of fear,” and Kipling assaults our ears. The “voices” of Kim occupy us, so that we become bridges threatened by the marching feet of a verbal legion, glass strained to the shatter-point by the pitch of words. His books talk in ways that force us to answer, and we try to reduce the stress of invading language by talking back—by humming along or humming against.

How is it that a writer so expert with typographic conventions manages to neutralize them, to elicit continually an aural as well as a visual response? As critics recognized when Kipling’s career began, his writing is like speech or music. Already in 1890, Barry Pain wrote a parody of Kipling that included the observation that

when we speak . . ., we often put a full stop before the relative clauses—add them as an afterthought . . . But when we write we only put a comma. The author of Plain Tales from the Hills saw this, and acted on the principle. He punctuated his writing as he did his speaking; and used more full stops than any man before him. Which was genius.

George Moore claimed that Kipling’s language is rhetorical, “copious, rich, sonorous . . . None since the Elizabethans has written so copiously.” And T. S. Eliot believed that, like Swinburne’s, Kipling’s work “has the sound-value of oratory, not of music. [His] is the poetry of oratory; it is music just as the words of orator or preacher are music; they persuade, not by reason, but by emphatic sound.” That this is equally true of Kipling’s prose seems clear from the testimony of Henry James and other critics who sought musical analogs to describe Kipling’s style.

Of greater importance than these impressionistic responses is an approach through Kipling’s use of colloquialism, which many critics mistook for journalism. Richard Bridgman examined the rise of colloquialism in American literature, tracing the slow and clumsy process by which authors discovered how to convey dialect and direct speech in a convincing way. He concludes that Kipling’s contemporaries, Twain and James, were the first writers to succeed and that, except for James’ experiments, “nothing very clear or purposeful happened to the vernacular in literature for a quarter of a century following the publication of Huckleberry Finn.” Bridgman refrains from noting the parallels between Twain and the so-called “regional” writers all over Europe during this period, from Leskov in Russia to the practitioners of Heimatkunst in Germany; nor does he call attention to the similarities between Twain and Kipling as uneducated exjournalists who expanded the literary lexicon by successfully importing colloquial language. He does not ask the obvious question: Would English and American literature have diverged so significantly in the twentieth century if English writers had capitalized on Kipling’s stylistic explorations as American writers did on Twain’s?

Approaches to Kipling through dichotomies between journalism and “true art” or between imperialist vulgarity and...

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The Novels

The Golden Temple of the Sikh religion is just one example of the religious and cultural diversity in India, the setting for Kim Published by Gale Cengage

Kim took considerably longer to grow than most of Kipling’s books: according to J. I. M. Stewart, ‘there was nothing which gave...

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