Kim Themes

(Novels for Students)

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Equality and Unity
The ideal of the equality and unity of men echoes across several motifs in Kim, most notably through the Buddhist teachings of Teshoo Lama. He tells Kim, “To those who follow the Way there is neither black nor white, Hind nor Bhotiyal. We be all souls seeking to escape.” This ideal of the equality and unity of men transcends the stringent caste, or class, distinctions of the predominantly Hindu society that Kim has known. The lama carries with him a diagram called the Wheel of Life, which is a symbolic representation of the Buddhist doctrine that all lives are equally bound in the cycle of life and that all souls seek release from this cycle by attaining Enlightenment. The numerous references to the Wheel of Life throughout the novel serve to reinforce the message of equality and unity. The lama’s teachings and his quest for Enlightenment are never the subject of Kipling’s criticism, as are other religious beliefs presented in Kim; rather, the resolution of the novel includes the lama’s triumphant attainment of Enlightenment, which serves to authenticate, rather than disprove, the doctrine of equality and unity echoed throughout.

Kipling also uses the theme of unity to portray an ideal India that is not divided by imperialism but rather is unified under it. This is especially evident in the relationships between the characters who participate in the Great Game: Mahbub Ali, an Afghan; Lurgan Sahib, a person of “mixed” race; Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, a Bengali; and Colonel Creighton, an Englishman, an officer, and therefore a member of the ruling class. Despite their disparate backgrounds, all these characters are united in a tight brotherhood of espionage that functions specifically to protect the interests of the British Empire in India. It is especially significant that Kipling shows both British and Indian characters alike operating on an equal basis for the good of the empire. This serves to promote an idealized, unrealistic portrayal of a specifically united, inclusive British India.

John A. McClure writes in his essay “Kipling’s Richest Dream,” “In Kim . . . brotherhood and despotism keep uneasy company.” In other words, the finely crafted portrayal of unity and equality Kipling develops between “native” and “Sahib” conflicts with the unavoidable fact that the British are the governing class, and the Indians are the governed. Kipling, however, presents the imperialist presence in India as unquestionably positive. This is done most effectively through the main plot of the novel—the endeavors of Indian and British spies to protect the northern border of British India from the encroachment of Russia, thus protecting the imperial interests of the British Empire. It is especially significant that Indian spies are shown protecting British interests. In this way, Kipling constructs an India in which the native population supports the British Empire and thus presents Britain’s imperialist presence as a positive good.

In recent years, orientalism has come to be defined as the knowledge and beliefs about the peoples of “the Orient”—that is, of the Middle East South Asia, and East Asia—as constructed and imposed by their Western European colonizers. Many of the observations of Indian life presented in Kim as fact are derogatory stereotypes, derived from such orientalists’ beliefs.

For example, Edward Said writes in his introduction to Kim:

Sihks are characterized as having a special ‘love of money’; Hurree Babu equates being a Bengali with being fearful; when he hides the packet taken from the foreign agents, the Babu ‘stowed the entire trove about his body, as only Orientals can.’

These derogatory ethnic stereotypes are sharply contrasted with Kipling’s portrayals of the British and British culture as more advanced. For example, when Lurgan Sahib attempts to hypnotize Kim, Kim recites the multiplication tables he learned at English school to...

(The entire section is 1,278 words.)