Rudyard Kipling

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Rudyard Kipling Long Fiction Criticism

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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...

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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, and Kipling wrote the Eastern chapters. The result is a poorly written, melodramatic, and lackluster novel.

Naulahka is a priceless necklace owned by the maharaja of Rhatore. Tarvin, an aggressive American entrepreneur, wants to bring the railroad to feudalistic Rhatore; he enlists the services of Mutrie, the wife of the president of the railroad company, to influence her husband. He promises to get her the Naulahka as a gift. Tarvin’s fiancé, Kate, is also in India to help the Indian women. With her help, Tarvin tries to influence the maharaja’s son. Kate wants a hospital; Tarvin wants the railroad. Kate then breaks off her relationship with Tarvin; he secures the necklace but returns it in order to save Kate’s life, which is threatened by a mad priest. Finally, Kate and Tarvin return to the United States.

The characters in The Naulahka are one-dimensional, and the narrative style is very episodic. In writing his part of the novel, Kipling drew heavily from his earlier book Letters of Marque (1891), lifting entire passages and incidents.

Captains Courageous

A better novel than The Light That Failed, Captains Courageous is Kipling’s only book that is completely American in character and atmosphere. Kipling made several visits to Gloucester, Massachusetts, with his friend Dr. John Conland to saturate himself with considerable technical information about cod fishing. He uses this information extravagantly in telling the story of Captains Courageous. The novel was published serially in McClure’s Magazine, and Kipling was not pleased with its publication. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that the novel was really a series of sketches and that he had “crept out of the possible holes by labelling it a boy’s story.”

Captains Courageous is the story of Harvey Cheyne, the spoiled only son of a millionaire. On a voyage to Europe, Harvey falls overboard and is picked up by a fishing boat. He bellows out orders and insults the skipper, Disko. Disko decides to teach the boy a lesson and puts Harvey under a strict program of work and discipline. The plan succeeds, and Harvey emerges stronger and humanized. When the boat reaches Gloucester, laden with salted cod, a telegram is sent to Harvey’s father, who rushes from San Francisco to retrieve his son. Harvey returns with his father to resume his studies and prepare himself for taking over his father’s business empire.

“Licking a raw cub into shape,” the central theme of Captains Courageous, is a favorite subject of Kipling. The technical knowledge displayed about cod fishing in the novel is impressive, but the characters themselves have no individuality. Harvey Cheyne’s transformation from a stubborn, spoiled young man into a mature, responsible individual is achieved too speedily. Kipling uses the story merely to illustrate what Lord Frederick Birkenhead describes in his biography of Kipling as “the virtue of the disciplined life upon a spoiled immature mind.”


T. S. Eliot considered Kim Kipling’s greatest work. Nirad C. Chaudhury, an Indian scholar, called Kim “not only the finest novel in English with an Indian theme but also one of the greatest of English novels in spite of the theme.” Kipling wanted to write a major book about India, and he started the project in 1885, in “Mother Maturin: An Anglo-Indian Episode.” That work concerned itself with the “unutterable horrors of lower class Eurasian and native life as they exist outside reports and reports and reports.” It was the story of an old Irishwoman who kept an opium den in Lahore but sent her daughter to study in London, where she marries, then returns to Lahore. Kipling’s father did not like it, however, and Kipling dutifully abandoned the project. Kim emerged instead.

Published in 1901, Kim is Kipling’s last book set in India. In Something of Myself, he notes that he had long thought of writing about “an Irish boy born in India and mixed up with native life.” Written under the influence of his demon—Kipling’s word to describe his guardian muse—Kim takes in all of India, its rich diversity and intensity of life.

In growing old and evaluating the past, Kipling turned to the best years of his life, his years in India. In Kim, Kipling relives his Indian years, when everything was secure and his family intact. Kim’s yearning for the open road, for its smells, sights, and sounds, is part of the longing of Kipling himself for the land that quickened his creative impulse and provided his literary success.

Kim is the story of an Irish orphan boy in India, a child of the streets. He grows up among Indian children and is aware of all the subtle nuances of Indian life. At the same time, however, he has the spirit of adventure and energy of his Irish ancestry. His joining the Red Lama from Tibet on his quest for the River of Healing, and Kim’s fascination for the British Indian secret service, “the Great Game,” results in his own self-discovery.

Kim has the characteristic features of a boy’s story, the lovable boy involved in a quest filled with adventure and intrigue. One is reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881-1882) and Kidnapped (1886) and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Kim, however, rises above the usual boy’s story in that it has a spiritual dimension. By coming into contact with the Lama, Kim emerges a sadder and wiser being at the end of the novel. Kim’s racial superiority is emphasized throughout the novel, but after his association with the Lama, Kim is able to say, “Thou hast said there is neither black nor white, why plague me with this talk, Holy One? Let me rub the other foot. It vexes me, I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela, and my head is heavy on my shoulders.” This is an unusual admission for Kim and Kipling.

Many of Kipling’s earlier themes are elaborated and incorporated into Kim. There is the vivid picture of the Indian army; the tale of “Lispeth,” from Plain Tales from the Hills, repeated in the story of the Lady of Shamlegh; and the Anglo-Indian, the native, and the official worlds providing backgrounds as they do in the short stories. Administering medicine in the guise of a charm to soothe and satisfy the Indian native, Jat is an echo from the earlier story “The Tomb of His Ancestors.” Buddhism, the scriptural tales of which—the Jataka Tales—supplied Kipling with a wealth of source material for his two Jungle Book collections and Just So Stories (1902), supplies the religious atmosphere in Kim. Even Kim’s yearning for the open road had been expressed previously in the character of Strickland, who, incidentally, makes a brief appearance in Kim.

Both the Venerable Teshoo Lama and Kim, the two main characters in Kim, emerge as distinctive individual characters and not mere types of the Asian holy man and the Anglo-Indian boy. They grow and develop an awareness of themselves and their surroundings. Kim realizes that his progress depends on the cooperation of several people: the Lama, Mukherjee, Colonel Creighton, and Mahbub Ali. The Lama too undergoes a change of character. He realizes that his physical quest for the River of Arrow has clouded his spiritual vision. The River of Arrow is at his feet if he has the faith to see it.

In selecting the Buddhist Lama as a main character, Kipling emphasizes the Middle Way. To the Lama, there is no color, no caste, no sect. He is also the tone of moderation without the extremes of Hinduism and Islam, the two main religious forces on the Indian subcontinent.

In the relationship between Kim and the Lama, Kipling portrays an integral part of Indian spiritual life, the teacher-disciple relationship, or the guru-chela interaction. It is not an ordinary relationship between a holy man and a boy; it is a special relationship, as the Lama notes, forged out of a previous association in an earlier life, the result of good karma. Kim is indeed a virtuoso performance; it is Kipling at his best.


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