Rudyard Kipling

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Rudyard Kipling Long Fiction Criticism

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Rudyard Kipling wrote four novels, one of them, The Naulahka, in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier. Kipling was essentially a miniaturist, and his genius was for the short story, a single event dramatized within a specific time frame. His novels reflect an episodic quality, and although Kipling brings to them a considerable amount of technical information—about cod fishing in Captains Courageous, army and artistic life in The Light That Failed, authentic topography and local color in The Naulahka—he fails in the development of character and in evoking an emotional response from his readers. Kim, however, is an exception.

The Light That Failed

The Light That Failed, dedicated to Kipling’s mother, has often been described by critics as “the book that failed.” Kipling acknowledged a debt to the French novel Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731, 1733, 1753; Manon Lescaut, 1734, 1786) by Abbé Prévost in writing the novel. It was first published in the January, 1891, issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and was later dramatized and filmed. When Macmillan and Company published it two months later, there were four new chapters, and the story concluded with a tragic ending and the note, “This is the story of The Light That Failed as it was originally conceived by the writer.” The difference between the magazine version, with its more conventional ending, and the book version, with the sad ending, caused some consternation among readers and critics.

The Light That Failed has many autobiographical elements. The novel opens with two children brought up by a sadistic housekeeper; Kipling drew on his own early life in “the house of desolation” for some of the harrowing experiences of Dick and Maisie in the novel. Dick and Maisie are not related, and each has an adolescent crush on the other. They are separated, and while Dick goes to the Far East to serve on the frontiers of the Empire, Maisie pursues her dream of becoming an artist. Dick wants Maisie to travel with him, but Maisie, committed to her art, remains in England. Dick later moves to Egypt as a war artist. He returns to London, and after a period of frustration, he enjoys fame and success. Kipling draws on his familiarity with the art world to describe the life of Dick in London. He had never been to Africa, however, and for the realism of his African scenes, Kipling relied on information he obtained from his friends. When Dick expresses fury and anger at unscrupulous art dealers, Kipling is lashing out at the publishers in the United States who boldly pirated his works.

In Dick and Maisie’s doomed love and its impact on Dick, readers see echoes of Kipling’s own unrequited love for Violet Flo Garrard. Flo was a painter, like Maisie, and in the words of Kipling’s sister, Flo was cold and obsessed with “her very ineffective little pictures.” Writer Angus Wilson, in his study of Kipling, asserts that Kipling found in Flo the quintessential femme fatale, “the vampire that sucks man’s life away.” Kipling has transferred some of the intensity of this feeling to Dick Heldar, almost his alter ego at certain times in the novel. Dick Heldar’s obsession with the single life and his desire for military life also express Kipling’s own passions. When Dick goes blind after being spurned by Maisie, Kipling is again drawing on his own anxiety about the possible loss of his own vision.

The Light That Failed ends very melodramatically with Dick’s death in the Sudanese battlefield amid bloody carnage. Apart from the autobiographical elements in the novel, The Light That Failed has little interest for the contemporary student of Kipling.

The Naulahka

Subtitled A Story of East and West and written in collaboration with Wolcott Balestier, The Naulahka compares the ways of the East, represented by the princely state of Rhatore in Central India, to those of the West, represented by the village of Topaz, Colorado. Balestier supplied the Western elements of the novel,...

(The entire section is 2,025 words.)