Rudyard Kipling Short Fiction Criticism
Many of Rudyard Kipling’s earliest short stories are set in the India of his early childhood years in Bombay and his newspaper days in Lahore. The intervening years at school in England had perhaps increased his sensitivity to the exotic Indian locale and British imperial presence. Kipling was a voracious reader of English, French, and American writers, trained by his newspaper experience in the virtues of conciseness and detail. His art arrived almost fully revealed in his earliest works. Kipling focused, however, not on the glories and conquests of empire but on the lives—work and activities, passions and emotions—of ordinary people responding to what were often extraordinary or inexplicable events. Love, especially doomed love, terror and the macabre, revenge and its consequences—these were the elements upon which his stories turned, even later when the settings were often English. His fame or notoriety was almost instantaneous, in part because of the locations and subject matter of the stories, because of his use of dialect in re-creating the voices of his nonestablishment characters, and because Kipling’s early writings appeared at a time when England and Western civilization as a whole were caught up in imperial dreams and rivalries.
A number of his stories pivot around the relations between men and women. Kipling has been called a misogynist, and often his characters, particularly those in the military, blame women for their own and others’ misfortunes. Most of his stories employ a male voice, and many critics agree that Kipling’s women are not often fully realized, particularly in his early years. The isolation of British soldiers and officials in India could itself explain these portrayals. There were boundaries in that esoteric environment—sexual, social, racial—that were violated only at a cost, but in Kipling’s stories they are crossed because his characters choose to do so or cannot help themselves.
“Beyond the Pale”
In “Beyond the Pale,” Christopher Trejago seduces and is seduced by a fifteen-year-old Hindu widow, Bisea, before misunderstanding and jealousy cause the lovers to terminate the relationship. Later, Trejago returns to their place of rendezvous only to discover that Bisea’s hands have been cut off at the wrists; at the instant of his discovery, he is attacked by a sharp object that injures his groin. One of Kipling’s shortest stories, it exhibits several of his continuing concerns. Love, passion, even understanding are often doomed, whether between man and woman or between British and Indians, while horror and unexpected shock can occur at any time and have lasting effects; revenge is a human quality. Stylistically, the story is rich in the descriptive detail of the dead-end alley where Bisea and Trejago first met but is enigmatic in explaining how the affair became known, leading to Bisea’s maiming. The story does not end with the assault on Trejago. As often with Kipling, there is a coda. Trejago is forced to carry on, with a slight limp and the remembrance of horror leading to sleepless nights.
Dangerous boundaries and illicit relationships also feature in his “Love-o’-Women,” the story of Larry Tighe, a gentleman who had enlisted as a common soldier, a gentleman-ranker who stepped down out of his proper world. Kipling often used the technique of a story-within-a-story, told by a narrator who may or may not be telling the total truth but whose own personality and perception are as important as the plot itself, accomplished most notably in “Mrs. Bathurst.” Here, in “Love-o’-Women,” the tale opens with Sergeant Raines shooting one of his own men, Corporal Mackie, who had seduced Mrs. Raines. After Raines’s trial, several soldiers ruminate on the dead Mackie’s fate. One of them, Terrence Mulvaney, comments that Mackie is the lucky one: He died quickly. He then tells the story of Tighe, who claimed the nickname of Love-o’-Women and made a career in the military of seducing daughters and wives, governesses and maids. When Tighe attempts to commit suicide by exposing his body to enemy fire during a battle, Mulvaney saves him and learns that Tighe deeply regrets what he has done, including his treatment and loss of his only real love, a woman named Egypt who turned to prostitution. Dying of syphilis, Tighe collapses in Egypt’s arms; she then shoots herself. Kipling did not necessarily believe in justice in the world, and, although reared a Christian, he was not orthodox in his religious beliefs but believed that there was a mortality for which one must answer. In “Love-o’-Women,” sin required confession, contrition, and penance.
“The Phantom ’Rickshaw”
Ghosts or phantoms also often played a role in Kipling’s stories. In “The Phantom ’Rickshaw,” Jack Pansay, an English official in India, begins a shipboard flirtation with a married woman, Mrs. Keith-Wessington, while returning from England. The affair continues in India, but Pansay grows tired of her, becoming engaged to someone else. Mrs. Wessington refuses to accept the termination of the romance and subsequently dies after losing control of her rickshaw while attempting to renew the affair. Soon, as a ghostly presence, she and her rickshaw begin to appear to Pansay, and feeling that his rejection had killed her, he himself sinks into decline. Although his doctor believes that his illness is merely the result of overwork, Pansay believes otherwise: His death is the payment required for his treatment of Mrs. Wessington.
“The Wish House”
From the beginning of his literary career, Kipling was considered to be a master in the use of dialect. Mulvaney’s telling of Tighe’s tale was rendered in an Irish dialect. In Kipling’s Indian stories, Mulvaney’s Irish was joined by characters speaking London Cockney, Yorkshire in northern England, and others. In many of his later stories, Kipling incorporated various English dialects, such as the Sussex dialect spoken by Grace Ashcroft and Liz Fettley in “The Wish House.” He generally used dialect when portraying the speech of persons from the undereducated classes or foreigners—persons different from his middle-class readers—and his treatment is often successful, even though some critics have claimed that his dialect re-creations were not entirely accurate. It has also been argued that, at times, the use of dialect gets in the way of the reading and understanding of the story itself, although this is more true of his early stories than his later ones.
“The Brushwood Boy”
On occasion, Kipling attempted to create the speaking style of the middle or upper classes. Here the use of words and phrases can be disconcerting to the reader, particularly after the diction and slang of an era has become dated. In “The Brushwood Boy,” George Cottar, the perfect public-school graduate and heroic young officer, resorts to “By Jove” on a regular basis. Possibly accurate then, it is artificial and stereotyped to a later generation. The same might be said about Kipling’s attempts to re-create the voices of children: Sometimes they are successful, sometimes not. If dialogue and dialect can deepen and extend the meaning and quality of a story, they can also date a story and detract from it.
In the 1890’s, after his marriage to Carrie and the birth of his three children, Kipling, although continuing to write short stories and novels for an adult audience, also turned his hand to works for children. Kipling had an empathetic feeling for children; some critics suggest that he never entirely outgrew his own childhood, with its traumas and rewards. The Jungle Book was published in 1894 and The Second Jungle Book the following year. The series of stories of the baby Mowgli reared by wolves in the jungle is perhaps the most enduring of Kipling’s many short-story collections. Several generations of children read about Father and Mother Wolf, the tiger Shere Khan, the sleepy bear Baloo, the panther Bagheera, and Kaa, the python. In later decades, other children came to know them through the Walt Disney cartoon feature, but there is a quality in the Kipling stories that did not translate fully to the screen. Like authors of other animal stories, Kipling anthropomorphized his creatures, and they exhibit recognizable human characteristics, but his jungle contains a quality of danger, of menace, which was not replicated in the Disney production.
“The King’s Ankus”
Kipling’s City of the Cold Lair in “The King’s Ankus,” inhabited only by the evil White Cobra, places the reader in a dark, dangerous, and claustrophobic building, a house of fear and death. A continuing motif in the stories involves references to the Law of the Jungle—Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest—an ideology very prominent in the imperialist years of the late nineteenth century. The villainous Shere Khan, Mowgli’s rival who is always eager to put Mowgli to death, belonged to that jungle world, while the Monkey-People as portrayed in “Kaa’s Hunting” and human beings, driven from their village in “Letting in the Jungle,” did not. Both species did not properly follow the law; both were cowardly, vindictive, thoughtless, greedy, and irrational.
Just So Stories
The Just So Stories were published in 1902. These were composed for an audience younger and more innocent than the readers of The Jungle Book stories. The teller of the tales, or fables, addresses his hearer as “O My Best Beloved,” who was Kipling’s eldest child, Josephine, who died at the age of six, in 1899. The Just So Stories appeal on two levels. First, they purport to answer some of the eternal questions of childhood such as “How the Camel Got His Hump” and “How the Leopard Got His Spots.” In so doing, Kipling’s genius for specific details captivates the reader. From “How the Whale Got His Throat” comes the following:If you swim to latitude Fifty North, longitude Forty West (that is magic), you will find sitting on a raft, in the middle of the sea, with nothing on but a pair of blue canvas breeches, a pair of suspenders (you must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved), and a jack-knife, one shipwrecked Mariner.
Second, the settings of the tales enchant with their exotic locale, such as the Howling Desert of the camel, the High Veldt of the leopard, and “the banks of the turbid Amazon” in those High and Far-Off Times.
Puck of Pook’s Hill
The fourth collection of Kipling’s children’s stories was Puck of Pook’s Hill, published in 1906. Now ensconced in the English countryside at Bateman’s, Kipling turned to the history of England. Puck, “the oldest Old Thing in England,” appears to two young children, Dan and Una, and through the use of magic conjures up for them various past eras from pre-Roman times onward. The nationalistic bias of the tales is not heavy-handed, and generally the narrative and the conversations of the characters are appropriate for children, while Puck’s world, if not Puck himself, is more familiar and less exotic than Kipling’s earlier children’s books. Among re-created practical Romans, patriotic Saxons, and archetypal peasants, the most evocative tale is “Dymchurch Flit,” recited by the narrator in a Sussex dialect. In the aftermath of Henry VIII’s Protestant Reformation, England’s fairies (“pharisees”) wished to flee from the land, and a peasant woman gives her two disabled sons through a “pure love-loan” to ferry them to the Continent. At the end of each conjuring of the past, however, Puck causes the children to forget him and his creations; he and his magic belong in the stories, not in so-called real life. Although Puck uses magic, the stories themselves are more realistic, being grounded in history, than either the fables of The Jungle Book, The Second Jungle Book, or Just So Stories.
One of Kipling’s most successful short stories was “Mrs. Bathurst,” published in 1904 and set in South Africa. On one level, the story is told through an unidentified first-person narrator. He and his friend Inspector Hooper, a railway investigator who had just returned from surveying railway equipment in the interior, are passing time drinking beer on a hot day. Hooper has something in his pocket for which he occasionally reaches but never quite removes. They are shortly joined by Pycroft, a sailor, and Sergeant Pritchard, whom the narrator knows but Hooper does not. Pycroft and Pritchard begin to reminisce about sailors whom they have known: Boy Niven who led them astray in the forests of British Columbia supposedly searching for his uncle’s farm, Spit-Kit Jones who married “the cocoanut-woman,” and Moon, who had “showed signs o’bein’ a Mormonastic beggar” and who deserted after sixteen years of service. The talk then turns to “V,” who had disappeared just recently while up-country, only eighteen months before his pension. “V” was also known as Click because of his false teeth, which did not quite fit. Hooper is interested in what Pycroft and Pritchard have to say about “V” and asks them if “V” has any tattoos. Pritchard takes umbrage, believing that Inspector Hooper is seeking information in order to arrest his friend “V.” Apologies are made, and then Hooper asks to hear more about “Vickery,” though until that moment only “V” had been used in the discussion.
The narrator asks why Vickery ran away, and Pycroft, through a smile, lets it be known that there was a woman involved. Mrs. Bathurst, a widow, owned a hotel in New Zealand frequented by sailors and others. Asked to describe her, Pycroft answered that “’Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It.” Pycroft has now become the primary narrator, and Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst are filtered through his memories and perceptions. According to Pycroft, Mrs. Bathurst had “It,” and Vickery was captivated although he did not let that be known to Pycroft at the time. Last December, as Pycroft tells the story, while on liberty in Cape Town, he ran into Vickery who, visibly disturbed, demanded that Pycroft accompany him to a biograph or cinematograph. This early motion picture—a recent novelty—featured scenes from England. Sitting in the front row, Vickery and Pycroft watched various London views appear on the “magic-lantern sheet.” The scene shifted to London’s Paddington Station, and among the passengers who came down the platform in the direction of the camera was Mrs. Bathurst, who “looked out straight at us with that blindish look. She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture—like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle.”
At Vickery’s urging, Pycroft accompanies him for five consecutive evenings to the cinematograph. On one occasion, Vickery agitatedly claims that Mrs. Bathurst is looking for him. Then, under obscure circumstances, Vickery is assigned up-country, and before he leaves he tells Pycroft that the motion picture of Mrs. Bathurst would appear again in a town where he would be able to see her once more. Vickery also abruptly informs Pycroft that he is not a murderer, for his wife had died during childbirth after Vickery had shipped out. Confused, Pycroft asked for the rest of the story but was not enlightened: “‘The rest,’ ’e says, ’is silence,’” borrowing from Hamlet (c. 1600-1601). Pycroft heard no more from Vickery.
At this point Hooper again reaches into his pocket and makes a reference to false teeth being acceptable evidence in a court of law. He then tells of his recent experience in the interior. Told to watch for a couple of tramps, Hooper recites how he could see them from a long way off, one standing and one sitting. They were dead.There’d been a bit of a thunderstorm in the teak, you see, and they were both stone dead and black as charcoal. That’s what they really were, you see—charcoal. They fell to bits when we tried to shift ’em. The man who was standin’ up had the false teeth. I saw ’em shinin’ against the black. Both burned to charcoal.
Again, Hooper reaches to his pocket, and again he does not bring forth anything. Although no other evidence appears, Pritchard for one seems to assume that the other body, unidentified by Hooper, is Mrs. Bathurst. Pycroft concludes that he for one is glad that Vickery is dead, wishing only to drink the last of the beer.
Throughout the story, Mrs. Bathurst is perceived through a series of images, as seen and related by Pycroft and Pritchard, who had known her in New Zealand, as told by Vickery to Pycroft, as she appears flickering on the motion-picture screen and as the unidentified narrator recites these varying images to the reader. If one theme in “Mrs. Bathurst” is the difficulty of perceiving the reality behind the images, another is the compulsive and destructive power of love. This was not a new aspect in Kipling’s work, but perhaps never before had the woman, and even the man, Vickery, been quite so filtered from the reader through the various narrators and now including her image on the screen. Vickery’s death apparently resulted because of his experience with Mrs. Bathurst. What was that experience? Was he escaping from her or seeking her out? Was he guilty of something? Apparently he was not guilty of murdering his wife. Had love or its consequences driven him mad? One critic has pointed out the element of “synchronicity,” or the significant coincidence as an element in “Mrs. Bathurst.” Many twentieth century writers, from James Joyce to Anthony Powell, have employed this device. In “Mrs. Bathurst,” the most notable example was the coincidence of Vickery and then Pycroft discovering Mrs. Bathurst on the motion-picture screen. The story is of seemingly disjointed events, like individual scenes in a motion picture. Combined they may have a coherence, but what that coherence is, or means, remains obscure, merely flickering images. Readers have puzzled over “Mrs. Bathurst” ever since the story first appeared.
Several of Kipling’s later stories continue to develop his earlier themes. In 1904, Kipling wrote “They.” A ghost story, or perhaps a fantasy, its setting is a beautiful, isolated country house in England inhabited by a young blind woman who, through her sheer need, has been able to bring back the spirits of dead children and thus to transcend the grave, the ultimate barrier. Like Mrs. Bathurst and other of Kipling’s female characters, the blind woman has a power that profoundly affects the world around her. In “The Wish House,” Grace Ashcroft goes to an abandoned house, inhabited by wraiths, where it was possible to take on the pain of some loved one; for her, it was her former lover. Like the blind woman in “They,” however, she is driven by a love that is ultimately a selfish one: She is willing to accept his pain as hers not only because she loved him but also because she hopes that he will never marry and find happiness with anyone else.
“Mary Postgate,” a powerful story of repression and revenge, portrays a middle-aged spinster and companion who passively accepts the abuse of the young boy of the house, Wyndham Fowler. He treated her shabbily for years, throwing things at her, calling her names such as “Posty” and “Packhead,” and belittling her abilities. Then, while in training as a pilot in World War I, Wynn is accidentally killed. Postgate has long repressed and denied any feelings and does so again when his death is announced; her only regret is that he died before he had the chance to “kill somebody.” While she is in town getting paraffin to burn Wynn’s effects, a building collapses, killing a young girl; although the local doctor tells her that the crash occurred from natural causes, she refuses to accept it, convinced that the Germans have bombed the house. Returning home to light the fire, she comes across an injured pilot in the garden and, assuming that he is German, refuses to summon a doctor, electing instead to watch him die. In choosing the pilot’s death, Postgate not only is having her revenge for the death of Wynn and the girl killed supposedly at the hands of the hated German enemy but also is gaining her personal revenge for the hollowness of her own life. The pilot in the garden might well be German, but for Mary it makes no difference: It could be anyone. As he dies and as the fire consumes Wynn’s effects, Mary experiences a rush of ecstasy comparable to a sexual release. “Mary Postgate” is a deeply felt exploration of a damaged human psyche.
“Dayspring Mishandled” is one of Kipling’s last and finest stories. It too is a story of revenge, but revenge ultimately not taken. It tells of two writers, Manallace and Castorley, cynically writing for pulp publication: “If you save people thinking you can do anything with ‘em.” After they quarrel, Castorley decides to write real literature and becomes a pseudoexpert on Geoffrey Chaucer; Manallace, who does have literary abilities, chooses not to pursue his talent and continues the easy path. Over an unspecified insult by Castorley to a woman for whom Manallace has been caring—typically in Kipling, much is left unsaid—Manallace vows revenge, creating a fake Chaucerian manuscript that Castorley publicly proclaims as legitimate, thus earning a knighthood. Manallace plans to reveal the fake, perhaps to the press, perhaps to Castorley himself to drive him insane, but he delays his plan as Castorley’s health begins to fail and as he is put under the care of a doctor Gleeag, who Manallace later suspects is poisoning Castorley. Lady Castorley urges Manallace to help Castorley assemble his collected works for publication and implies that she knows about the forgery; Manallace believes that she is having an affair with Gleeag, the doctor, and that she wants knowledge of the fake Chaucer manuscript to come out in hopes that the shock will kill her husband. On his deathbed, Castorley confesses his fears to Manallace: The manuscript was “too good,” and his wife has reminded him that “a man could do anything with anyone if he saved him the trouble of thinking,” which is exactly what Manallace has done with Castorley by allowing him to validate the fake without really thinking. Castorley dies of what Gleeag, Lady Castorley’s paramour, said was “Malignant kidney-disease—generalized at the end.”
Like most of Kipling’s best stories, “Dayspring Mishandled” explores the recurring themes of passion and revenge, the failure of human nature, the confusion in relationships, frustrated ambition, and the inability to see clearly, even in the understanding of oneself. It is rich in allusions and references that remain unexplained and are left for the reader to explore. Kipling’s most popular stories were the product of his early life, but some of his greatest stories—too often ignored for a time—were written toward the end.