The Man Who Would Be King

by Rudyard Kipling

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 652

Published in 1888, “The Man Who Would Be King” embraces a uniquely Victorian style and structure. Stylistically speaking, the short story is an interesting departure from the conventional first-person voice. Generally, first-person narration centers the narrative inside the narrator’s mind to tell the story of their direct involvement and experience with the plot. Kipling subverts this expectation by writing in the first-person peripheral and making his narrator a character who is ultimately incidental to the story. His unnamed newspaper correspondent is not truly a participant in the events of this story; instead, he lingers in the outskirts of the narrative and retells the information as it is relayed to him rather than as he experiences it. Furthermore, there is the added irony that the narrator works as a news correspondent, an occupation paralleling his role as the storyteller. 

Though Kipling’s unnamed narrator is the guiding force behind the story’s narrative thrust, occasionally, other characters interject their subjectivities and supersede the narrator’s own. As a structural device, the emergence of these interlocutors as pseudo-narrators transforms “The Man Who Would Be King” into a multi-strand story; it is relayed not only through the narrator’s voice but also Carnehan’s. Structurally, the story is also a frame narrative, in which a story takes place inside a story. In this case, the main story follows the narrator as he interacts with Dravot and Carnehan. The secondary story occurs during one such interaction wherein Carnehan’s subjective voice consumes the narrative direction in a true first-person turn. Inevitably, the story-within-a-story comes to an end, the correspondent’s peripheral story returns to the fore, and the dominant narrative forces—Dravot and Carnehan—fade into the past as the narrator resumes his regular life. 

This structure was a common feature of Victorian literature; as the story takes place in Victorian India, Kipling’s reliance on this familiar structure makes sense. He tells a tale of two would-be adventurers through the lens of an everyday Englishman, using his staid sensibilities to describe the two men, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan. They seem like people from another time, and their desires are ill-fit for the bureaucratic, industrialized world of the Victorians. Indeed, as Carnehan says, "India isn't big enough for such as us." This represents one of the great tensions of the story: the tension between the larger-than-life self-image of the two would-be tricksters, who perceive themselves as coming from the same mold as Alexander the Great, and the reality that they are ultimately far more limited in their capabilities. Their lofty ambitions ultimately turn tragic, leading to Dravot’s violent demise and Carnehan’s slow decline into insanity. 

Beholden to the Victorian literary tradition, the story is equally indebted to the author’s historical context. Dravot and Peachey, two morally-compromised con men, embark on a mission of conquest intended to replicate the imperial project of the British Empire itself. They intend to “make an Empire” and “treat with the Viceroy on equal terms.” Their project is a civilizing one, reaching into the untouched depths of northern Afghanistan to subjugate the “utter brutes” that live there. As they do so, their journey and governance become an allegorical exploration of the British imperial ethos. 

Though Dravot and Carnehan create a sense of colonial structure and order—training an army, manufacturing arms, building a cult of personality, and consolidating natural resources—their project falters as Dravot descends into selfish greed. As an organizing and civilizing effort, Kipling argues, their efforts were successful. Morally compromised and subjectively influenced leadership, however, must inevitably falter. As an extended metaphor for the English governing body, then, “The Man Who Would Be King” presents Kipling’s perspective on contemporary imperial politics, permitting such efforts as a means of civilizing and ordering a world he saw as savage, he is careful to note the moral obligation to govern beyond the influence of greed or desire.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access