The Man Who Would Be King

by Rudyard Kipling

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Inescapability of Reality

Living in a fantasy world might be fun for a while, but, at some point, one must return to reality. Even when one attempts to defy the pull of reality—as Dravot and Carnehan do—it will inevitably, and often violently, descend.

Dravot and Carnehan seem of larger-than-life proportions, as though they have stepped right from the pages of a tale of fiction. The two ridiculous con men galavant about the Indian countryside and create fantasy life after fantasy life, first as fictitious correspondents, then as a mad priest and his companion, and then as gods who would be kings. Determined to become “Emperors of the Earth” by pretending to be “heathen idols” of the Kafiri people, their con is surprisingly successful for a time.  Inevitably, their fantasies fail, and they must face gruesome reality. The story indicates that, though comforting and perhaps desirable, such false and deluded images of reality are inescapably short-lived. One cannot simply live in delusion, for reality will always return.

The British Imperial Question

Dravot and Carnehan’s exploits in Kafiristan are an undeniably overt allegory for British imperialism at the time. Written in 1888, the story is steeped in the author’s perspective and historical context and reveals Kipling’s assessment of what British imperialism can and should look like. 

As Dravot and Carnehan establish themselves in Kafiristan, their rule is initially framed as positive and beneficial to the Kafiri. They seem to be fair rulers and plan to bring their new nation to the fore of global politics by industrializing and civilizing the natives. Though they exploit the people they rule, it is not out of greed or malice. Indeed, their exploitative actions express their desire to provide the order and guidance they cannot exercise within the bounds of English society. Kipling indicates that such exploitation is somewhat beneficial as it allows the Kafiri to expand their borders and create a sense of unity and order. It is not until Dravot’s rule is compromised by his arrogance and desire that Kipling begins to question the role of imperialism; as Dravot falls prey to the trappings of power, he is killed. In that sense, Kipling indicates that British imperialism can be a tool for good, but it can also be misused and is sensitive to fallible, morally questionable leadership. 

The Folly of Pride

For a time, Dravot and Carnehan’s imperial project is somewhat of a success. Dravot has built a cult of personality, and his people love him; Carnehan has trained an army and rapidly expanded the boundaries of their empire in Kafiristan. They thought themselves gods, and, somehow, they have elevated themselves to such lofty—if falsified—positions.

Their success is contingent on their careful acquiescence to expectation; for their subjects to believe that they are gods, they must act the part. Dravot, however, loses sight of the shaky state of his godhood and begins to believe that his recently consolidated power is absolute and unassailable. This assumption, of course, leads directly to his death and the downfall of his empire. 

If Dravot had not allowed himself to become so proud of his position, status, and power, then he might have continued to live a very successful life as king of Kafiristan. However, he finds a way to negate the rules of the contract he and Carnehan had drawn up and  pridefully demands a local wife. He becomes "white-hot" with rage when no wife is immediately procured and is too proud to understand why no one wants to marry him. His insistence on a human wife, a request much unlike a god, is the catalyst for his downfall, for if Dravot had not become so proud, he might still be alive and in power.

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