Rudyard Kipling World Literature Criticism
Although Robert Louis Stevenson was the first British writer to build his career on the short-story form, Kipling was the first to stimulate a considerable amount of criticism, much of it adverse, because of his short fiction. In fact, much of the negative criticism that Kipling received is precisely the same kind of criticism that has often been lodged against the short-story form in general—for example, that it focuses only on episodes, that it is too concerned with technique, that it is too dependent on tricks, and that it often lacks a moral force.
Henry James was perhaps the first to note that the young Kipling realized very early the uniqueness of the short story, seeing what chances the form offered for “touching life in a thousand different pieces . . . each a specimen and an illustration.” Yet it is just this appreciation for the episode, according to Edmund Wilson, that prevented Kipling from becoming a great novelist:You can make an effective short story, as Kipling so often does, about somebody’s scoring off somebody else; but this is not enough for a great novelist, who must show us large social forces, or uncontrollable lines of destiny, or antagonistic impulses of the human spirit, struggling with one another.
Moreover, it is not simply because Kipling could not “graduate,” as it were, to the novel that critics have found fault with him. Critic Randall Jarrell says that Kipling lacks a “dispassionate moral understanding,” that his morality is too one-sided, and that he does not have the ability both to understand things and to understand that there is nothing to be done about them. Short-story writer Frank O’Connor confesses his embarrassment in discussing Kipling’s stories in comparison with those of storytellers such as Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant, for he believes that Kipling is too conscious of the individual reader as an audience who must be affected.
C. S. Lewis also recoiled from Kipling for similar reasons. Complaining about what he calls the excess of Kipling’s art, he complains that Kipling constantly shortened and honed his stories by blotting out passages with India ink. Ultimately, says Lewis, the story is often shortened too much, and, as a result, “the style tends to be too continuously and obtrusively brilliant” with no “leisureliness.” Similarly, Wilson says that it is the paradox of Kipling’s career that he “should have extended the conquests of his craftsmanship in proportion to the shrinking of the range of his dramatic imagination. As his responses to human beings become duller, his sensitivity to his medium increased.”
Such remarks either ignore or fail to take seriously the fact that the short tale practiced by Kipling is not designed to focus on character but rather on fable, on the meaning of an episode in an ideal form. Bonamy Dobrée, in one of the best-known critical efforts to revive interest in Kipling as an artist, has noted this fabular aspect of Kipling’s stories, suggesting that as Kipling’s mastery of the short-story form increased, he became more and more inclined to introduce an element of fable. “Great realist as he was, it is impossible to see what he was really saying unless the fabular element is at least glimpsed.”
Yet the fabular element, so common to the short-story form, often is criticized as being limiting in Kipling, as indeed over the years such an element has been a central source of adverse criticism of short fiction generally. It has been suggested that while Kipling’s desire to have complete control of his form and medium can lead to impressive achievements in fantasy and fable, it can also lead to a simplification and distortion. In the short story, it is the fable that is the focus; characters exist for the sake of the story. Kipling was perhaps the first English writer to embrace these characteristics of the short-story form wholeheartedly; thus, his stories are perfect representations of the transition point...
(The entire section is 3,859 words.)