Rudyard Kipling

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Rudyard Kipling World Literature Criticism

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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,...

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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 between the old-fashioned tale of the nineteenth century and the modern British short story.

“The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes”

First published: 1885 (collected in The Phantom ’Rickshaw, and Other Tales, 1888)

Type of work: Short story

This work is a combination adventure story and social parable in which a man finds himself trapped in an otherworldly realm somewhere between life and death.

“The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes” is based on a conventional type of gothic story popular during the early part of the nineteenth century. It is a form that Edgar Allan Poe adapted for his own use and thus made part of the foundation of the short-story form. Kipling’s treatment of this genre begins with the familiar literary convention of being presented as a true story; the central character and storyteller, Jukes, was a civil engineer and thus not a man to take the trouble to invent imaginary tales. When Jukes’s story begins, the motivation for his journey to the mysterious realm is supplied in a typically ambiguous gothic way: Jukes has a fever and is light-headed and hallucinatory. When he madly chases a dog into the desert, his horse stumbles and falls. When Jukes regains consciousness, he finds himself in a horseshoe-shaped crater of sand so steep that he cannot climb out. The only way out is across the river where the horseshoe opens out, but that way is guarded by an invisible sentry with a rifle and by a bed of quicksand.

Jukes discovers that he is not alone in the crater; a small band of ragged natives appear, one of whom he recognizes as a telegraph master, Gunga Dass. It is from Gunga Dass that he learns where he is—a sort of wasteland holding place where those who have been in a cataleptic trance are taken until they die in actuality. In existence for at least a century, the hidden village is legendary; no one ever escapes except by death. Thus, the unfortunates who end up there are examples of the “living dead,” for even though they live, they are as good as dead and buried. It is part of Kipling’s parable pattern that the unfortunates are primarily native Indians of the lower caste.

Much of the story centers on Jukes’s helpless situation and his sense of humiliation that, although he is a sahib, a representative of the dominant race, in this place he is like a child completely at the mercy of the natives. Ironically, it is by means of death that Jukes discovers a way to save his life. Finding the body of another sahib who has died there before, Jukes discovers a notebook with directions for bypassing the quicksand. Although he knows that the white man was killed by Gunga Dass, he has not counted on the treachery of the Indian toward himself. Gunga Dass knocks him unconscious and leaves him there to die. Immediately thereafter, Jukes’s escape, much like the escape of a character in a story by Poe, is abruptly effected when one of his servants finds him and pulls him out of his sandy trap.

On one hand, the story seems little more than a gothic adventure story of a strange journey, a dreamlike experience with no real meaning. On the other hand, the situation of the white sahib caught between two worlds, the world of life and the world of death, and at the mercy of Gunga Dass, has symbolic significance even though its surface plot is pure action-adventure. It turns the usual Kipling story of the white man’s dominance over the brown man on its head and suggests that, in the world of the living dead, it is the scavenger who survives. Jukes does not earn his escape as Gunga Dass does, but he is pulled out of the hidden valley as if he were abruptly awakened from a bad dream.

“The Man Who Would Be King”

First published: 1888 (collected in The Phantom ’Rickshaw, and Other Tales, 1888)

Type of work: Short story

Two white men set themselves up as rulers of a hidden country, but their own pride brings about their downfall.

One of Kipling’s most Joseph Conrad-like stories is one of his earliest pieces, “The Man Who Would Be King,” which Henry James called an “extraordinary tale” and which many critics have suggested is a typical Kipling social parable about British imperialism in India. One critic, Walter Allen, calls it a “great and heroic story,” but he says that Kipling evades the metaphysical issues implicit in the story. Although “The Man Who Would Be King” does not contain the philosophic generalizations of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, serial; 1902, book), and is perhaps not as subtle a piece of symbolist fiction, it is nonetheless a coherent piece of fabular fiction carefully constructed and thematically significant.

The secret of the story is its tone; indeed, tone and style are everything in the work. The story focuses primarily on the crucial difference between a tale told by a narrator who merely reports a story and a narrator who has lived the story he tells. The first-person, primary narrator is a journalist whose job it is to report the doings of “real kings,” whereas Peachey Carnehan, the inner narrator, has as his task the reporting of the events of a “pretend king.” The primary narrator (Kipling) tells the story of Peachey and Daniel Davrot, which, although it is fiction, is presented as if it were reality. The secondary narrator (Peachey) tells a story of Peachey and Davrot in which the two characters project themselves out of the “as-if” real world of the story into the purely projected and fictional world of their adventure.

The tone of the tale reflects the journalist-narrator’s bemused attitude toward the pair of unlikely heroes and his incredulity about their “idiotic adventure.” “The beginning of everything,” he says, is his meeting with Peachey in a railway train, where he learns that the two are posing as correspondents for the newspaper for which the narrator is indeed a real correspondent. Role-playing is an important motif in the story, for indeed Peachey and Davrot are always playing roles; they are essentially vagabonds and loafers with no real identity of their own. After the narrator returns to his office and becomes “respectable,” Peachey and Davrot interrupt this respectability to tell him of their fantastic plan and to try to obtain from him a factual framework for the country where they hope to become kings. “We have come to you to know about this country, to read a book about it, and to be shown maps,” says Carnehan. “We want you to tell us that we are fools and to show us your books.” The mythic proportions of the two men—or rather their storybook proportions, for “mythic” is too serious a word here for the grotesque adventurers—are indicated by the narrator’s amused awareness that Davrot’s red beard seems to fill half the room and Carnehan’s huge shoulders the other half.

The actual adventure begins with additional role-playing as Davrot pretends to be a mad priest (an ironic image that he indeed is to fulfill later) marching forward with whirligigs (playful crosses) to sell as charms to the savages. The narrator again becomes “respectable” and turns his attention to the obituaries of real kings in Europe until three years later, when Peachey returns, a “whining cripple,” to confront the narrator with his story that he and Davrot have been crowned kings in Kafiristan, exclaiming, “you’ve been sitting here ever since—oh, Lord!” Peachey’s inserted story thus stands in contrast to the pedestrian story of the narrator’s situation and is contrasted with it by its fantastic, storylike nature in which Peachey and Davrot have indeed set themselves up as fictional kings in a real country.

The storylike nature of the adventure is indicated first of all by Peachey’s frequent confusing of himself with Davrot and by his frequent reference to himself in the third person:There was a party called Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan that was with Davrot. Shall I tell you about him? He died out there in the cold. Slap from the bridge fell old Peachey, turning and twisting in the air like a penny whirligig.

Moreover, Peachey and Davrot often speak to the people Davrot calls the “lost tribe” in biblical language. The purpose of these biblical allusions is to give Peachey’s tale an authoritative story framework, indeed the most basic and dignified story framework in Western culture. Davrot becomes king by moving from fighting to craft via Masonic ritual, a ritual that reaffirms Davrot’s superior position and controls his followers. Since Davrot has projected himself into the role of god as king, however, and thus assumes a position in the kingdom as the fulfillment of prophecy and legend, he is bound to this particular role. It is only when he wishes to escape the preestablished role and marry a native girl that his world falls apart. When he is bitten by his frightened intended bride, the cry of the people, “Neither God nor Devil, but a man,” breaks the spell and propels Davrot and Peachey back into reality again.

The fact that Peachey and Davrot are really double figures is indicated not only by Peachey’s reference to himself as suffering Davrot’s fate but also by the fact that, if Davrot is the ambiguous god-man, then it is Peachey who must be crucified. Kipling finds it necessary of course to make this split, for the god-man must not only die but also be resurrected. Peachey is the resurrected figure who brings the head of Davrot, still with its crown, back to tell the tale to the narrator. Peachey’s final madness and death, and the mysterious disappearance of the crowned head, are the ironic fulfillment of a final escape from external reality.

It seems clear from the seriocomic tone and the parodic use of biblical story and language that what Kipling is attempting in “The Man Who Would be King” is a burlesque version of a basic dichotomy in the nature of story itself. The narrator, who deals with real events in the world, tells a story of someone, who in turn tells a story of fantastic events in which the real world is transformed into the fabular nature of story. Davrot and Peachey project themselves into a purely story-world, but once they are accepted there, they cannot break the code of the roles that they have assumed. When they do make such an effort, the story they have created, and thus the roles they have played, become apparent as fictional roles only and crumble like a pack of cards. The man who would be a king can be a king only in the pretend world of story itself, and then only as long as story-world or story-reality is maintained. A story character cannot be human, for when he or she attempts to become real—when the character begins to take his or her story status as true reality—the story ends. It is little wonder that “The Man Who Would be King” has such a comic tone, for truly what Kipling is playing with here is not the nature of empires but the nature of story. If one wishes to read this tale as a parable of the tenuous and fictionally imposed nature of British imperialism, then such a reading is possible, but only because the story is primarily about the essentially tenuous nature of the fable world itself.

“Mrs. Bathurst”

First published: 1904 (collected in Traffics and Discoveries, 1904)

Type of work: Short story

Four men are baffled by the relationship between a sailor who deserts the navy and the widowed keeper of a New Zealand hotel who follows him to England.

“Mrs. Bathurst” is one of the most cryptic and puzzling of all Kipling’s stories. Part of what makes the story such a mystery is the method by which it is told, for it is presented almost completely as a dialogue among four men. Furthermore, the dialogue is so clipped and cryptic that it is often difficult to follow. The principal characters are Petty Officer Pyecroft, his friend Sergeant Pritchard of the marines, the narrator, and his friend Inspector Hooper of the South African railways. Pyecroft and Pritchard tell the other two men the story about Warrant Officer Vickery, who deserted the service with only eighteen months left before his discharge, and his mysterious relationship with Mrs. Bathurst, a young widow who managed a hotel in New Zealand.

The central story of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst is prefaced by a brief account about the officer Boy Niven, who lured a small group of sailors and marines into the woods for no other reason than for personal publicity. At the end of this inconclusive and seemingly irrelevant little tale, the conversation moves to Vickery and his mysterious desertion so close to his discharge. The first ambiguous reference to Vickery is to his nickname “Click,” in reference to the four false teeth on his lower left jaw that were not set properly and thus made a clicking sound when he talked fast. At the reference to the false teeth, Inspector Hooper is meaningfully described with his hand in his waistcoat pocket, although at this point it is certainly not clear why Hooper should have Vickery’s false teeth on his person.

When the topic of Mrs. Bathurst is introduced, most of the conversation is between Pyecroft, who is telling the tale, and Pritchard, who knows the lady and vouches for her kindness and integrity. He cannot believe that she is the cause of a married man and father like Vickery deserting the service. In a key phrase in the story, however, Hooper, after hearing of Mrs. Bathurst’s ladylike behavior, says, “I don’t see her somehow.” To see Mrs. Bathurst becomes the challenge of the story. Even though both Pyecroft and Pritchard say they have seen her only once or twice, they can remember her vividly. Pyecroft says, “That’s the secret. ’Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It. Some women’ll stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down a street.”

Kipling’s puzzling story is, in some ways, about this kind of fascination, for all four of the men can remember having met one or two women of that nature, and all agree that if a man gets struck with that kind of woman, he goes crazy. What gives the story its particular turn of the screw is the “dark and bloody mystery” of Vickery’s own vision of Mrs. Bathurst. Pyecroft tells of Vickery’s insisting that he accompany him to a showing of an early motion picture, the cinematograph, in Cape Town, South Africa. Pyecroft knows that something strange is involved, for he says the look of Vickery’s face reminded him of “those things in bottles in those herbalistic shops at Plymouth—preserved in spirits of wine. White an’ crumply things—previous to birth as you might say.”

What makes Pyecroft’s description of the experience at the cinematograph so crucial to the story is the particular nature of early audience response to the new film technology. While watching a film, early viewers often mistook it momentarily for reality. In the particular film scene that Vickery wants Pyecroft to see, the London Mail train is shown arriving at the station and the passengers getting out “just like life.” As they walk toward the camera, and thus seemingly toward the film viewers, they walk right out of the picture. Pyecroft sees Mrs. Bathurst come straight toward them, looking at them in a blind way without seeing and then melting out of the picture “like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle.” Vickery says, “it’s the woman herself,” and he urges Pyecroft to come with him to see her again the next night. For five consecutive nights, they go to see the film to watch Mrs. Bathurst make her forty-five-second walk toward them with that blind look in her eyes.

Although Pyecroft declares that Vickery is insane, he says that Vickery told him that Mrs. Bathurst was in England looking for him. Vickery tells Pyecroft that, whereas he only had to watch, “I’m it.” Moreover, he tells Pyecroft to remember that he is not a murderer, that his wife died in childbirth six weeks after he left England on his last voyage. When the listeners to Pyecroft’s story ask for the rest of it, he replies, “the rest is silence.” All that is known for sure is that Vickery deserted and disappeared.

The story ends with the men considering the possible meaning of Vickery’s experience. Hooper says, “I wonder what it was,” and Pyecroft replies, “I’ve made my ’ead ache in that direction many a long night.” Once again, when Pyecroft mentions hearing Vickery’s clicking teeth, Hooper’s hand goes significantly to his waistcoat pocket. It is Hooper who ends the story with a grisly little tale of his own about two tramps he saw standing by the railway in the interior. Having been struck by lightning, the two were burned to charcoal and fell to bits when Hooper touched them. The man who was standing up had the false teeth, says Hooper; the other was squatting down and watching him. Both of them fell to pieces when he touched them, Hooper explains. The story ends with Pyecroft saying that after having seen Vickery’s face for five consecutive nights, he thanks God that he is dead.

Critics have long puzzled over this story, complaining that Kipling cut too much out of it and thus left it stripped of any explanatory detail. Although one knows that the standing pile of ashes is Vickery, one can only guess that the other one is Mrs. Bathurst herself, since no other character has been introduced in the story. “Mrs. Bathurst” focuses on the unexplainable mystery of human fascination, but it is the mystery of the cinema that serves as the central metaphor, for as Vickery watches the film night after night, he is in that curious situation experienced by all filmgoers of being a viewer who cannot himself be seen. Moreover, as he tells Pyecroft, he is not merely a viewer but is the missing character in the film, for he insists that Mrs. Bathurst has gone to England to find him. Instead of playing a told story over and over again, as is the usual short-story convention, the film creates the illusion of the actual event being repeated. What is so unbearable to Vickery is that Mrs. Bathurst’s search for him seems to be repeated over and over again. Although it obviously took place in the past, every time he sees it, it seems to be taking place in the present. Making the story depend on dialogue rather than on narration, Kipling not only makes the cinema scene the central metaphor of the story but also makes cinema technique the means by which the story is told.


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