The origins of “They” can be traced to a tragic event in Rudyard Kipling’s own life. He and his family had traveled to New York in 1899, and during the trip both Kipling and his seven-year-old daughter became seriously ill. Kipling recovered, but his daughter did not. Kipling’s grief was deep and enduring. Back at his home in England, according to his father, he would see his daughter—like the children in “They”—“when a door opened, when a space was vacant at table, coming out of every green dark corner of the garden, radiant—and heart breaking.” There is no doubt that “They,” underneath the luxuriousness and beauty of the setting and the apparent gaiety of the children’s presence, carries a heavy weight of sorrow, which only gradually unfolds itself.
The theme of the story is of the continuity of life and the continuity of grief, in the face of the raw facts of “losin’ and bearin’,” the human experience of birth and death. The theme has two crosscurrents. In one sense the story is uplifting; the ghost-children, after all, seem happy enough, and they can be perceived by those who possess love and spiritual insight. Love reaches beyond the grave, and the dead are a comfort to the living. However, they are a torture also. There is no mistaking the sadness and sense of regret in the unnamed blind woman; her voice “would have drawn lost souls from the Pit, for the yearning that underlay its sweetness.” It is as if her psychic gifts must somehow be paid for, and in this respect she resembles the character Mrs. Ashcroft in “The Wish House,” another of Kipling’s short stories set in the Sussex countryside.
In the final pages of the story the full force of the sorrowful aspect of the theme is brought out, as the inner life of the narrator comes to the fore. His soul is “torn open,” and his realization that he can never return to the house where the presence of the dead is so vivid is “like the very parting of spirit and flesh.” Perhaps here the autobiographical strain of the story surfaces once more; Kipling, as the narrator, must put his grievous loss behind him and channel his psychic energies into further creative work.