Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

“The Man Who Would Be King” is, among Kipling’s stories, the one most reminiscent of Joseph Conrad; that is, although it is a typical Kipling adventure story, it seems to have more serious implications—much as does Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902)—than most of his other stories do. Moreover, it attempts to sustain these philosophical implications on the structure of a typical Kipling social parable about British imperialism in India, just as Heart of Darkness is about imperialism in Africa. Both stories embody a strange combination of the serious and the absurd and a subtle mixture of reality and dreamlike fantasy. Although “The Man Who Would Be King” does not contain the philosophical generalizations of Conrad’s story, nevertheless it should be seen as something more than merely an adventure story or a simple social parable.

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The basic theme of “The Man Who Would Be King,” which undergirds the social theme of British imperialism, is that of the dichotomy between two different kinds of reality—the “realistic” realm of the journalist who deals with the everyday world of “real kings” and the fantastic, make-believe world of Dravot and Peachey, who create their own fantasy and then live in it. The clue to this basic theme of the reality of pretense is announced when the narrator first meets Dravot and Peachey, characteristically playing roles, for the two men play roles throughout, not only as newspaper correspondents but also as mad priests and real kings. More comic, mythic characters than real people, Peachey and Dravot create stories for themselves within which they then live.

The storylike nature of their adventure is indicated in Peachey’s account, first by his frequent confusing of himself with Dravot and second by his frequent references to himself in the third person: “There was a party called Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan that was with Dravot. Shall I tell you about him? He died out there in the cold.” As Peachey tells his tale, he insists that the narrator continue to look him in the eye. Thus he becomes an image of Samual Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who holds the wedding guest by his glittering eye and links the listener and teller in a story-made bond. The fact that the theme of the story transcends an obvious social parable about imperialism to focus on the dual nature of reality can be attributed to the fact that Kipling was trying to combine the techniques of romance adventure with the techniques of realistic social fiction. The result is that the contradictory conventions of romance and realism are held in self-conscious tension.

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Characters