12 February 2014
In 1901, Rudyard Kipling published his last text dealing with British India. In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “… i betrakfande af den iaktfagelseförmåga, den ursprungliga inbillningskraft samt den manliga styrka i uppfaffning och skildringskonst, som utmårka denne världsberömde forfaffares skapelser.” (“… on account of the great power of observation, the original conception and also the virile comprehension and art of narration that distinguishes his literary creations.”) (Nobel Prize Citation).
Kim is arguably Kipling’s only successful full-length novel: The Light that Failed (1890) was a notable critical failure; the moderately more successful The Naulakha (1892) was co-authored with his fiancée’s brother, Wolcott Balestier; Stalky & Co. (1899), is a short-story cycle. Attitudes toward the novel have changed drastically over the years. The basic progression of critical response is that Kim was initially heralded as “the only memorable novel inspired by the subcontinent” (Rubin 14), then derided as the work of a “colonial and a racist” (Murari, qtd. in Moore-Gilbert Kipling 42), and is now back in the spotlight as fundamental to a comprehension of India, and what it is to be Indian (Moore-Gibert, “I am”). This was evident when I tried to teach Kim at the university level: the responses ranged from adoration to derision by way of incomprehension. It surprised me greatly that the language of the novel would be beyond third-year students, but there it is. Those who did complete the novel either loved it or were offended by the Victoria attitudes therein. Still, it remains one of my favourite novels for children, in the august company of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (1875), L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars (1976-79) series (can we count Lord of the Rings as children’s books? And there are certainly others…)
So what is it that makes Kim stand out from Kipling’s other works, from other children’s novels of Empire, or indeed most of children’s literature at the time? For me, it is partially the large cast of fully developed characters, all balanced by their various relationships with the central figure, young Kimball O’Hara. It is partially, too, the deep understanding Kipling has of the land that Kim travels through, and the intrigue of The Great Game that is played there: the contest between Russia and England for control over (uncontrollable) Central Asia. Kipling’s inclusion of historical facts is not great, but his knowledge of the country, the cultures, and the political machinations of the British Empire in India certainly is. Kim has a boys’-own flare without the overt jingoism that accompanies so many texts of Empire, especially at the turn of the 20th century. Not only are the characters in Kim carefully and deeply crafted, but Kipling presents a vast array of religions and cultures, all treated with the same balance between humour and respect. While the Bengali Hurree Chunder Mookerjee is a source of comedy, he is also a loyal friend, and an effective and dedicated spy for the British government. The Afghani Mahbub Ali, too, is presented with respect for his strength (of both body and character) and his unquestionable affection for Kim. The Buddhist Teshoo Lama, both naïve and holy, is perhaps the most revered of characters—by both Kim and Kipling. The other two religious figures—the Anglican Reverend Arthur Bennett and the Catholic Father Victor—are presented without excessive disparagement, given their [in Kim’s view] unhelpful desires to educate Kim in the ways of their separate religions. Kipling’s “fallen” women—the formidable Woman of Shamlegh, who is “Lispeth” in Kipling’s earlier story of that name; the widowed Woman of Kulu who heals Kim; and the Shimla prostitute who helps Kim disguise himself—are all presented as essentially moral, strong women—a representation not accorded many fictional women, of any ethnicity, at the time. Character, plot, and setting weave together in an irresistible narrative web. We come to love both Kim and his Lama, to respect the integrity and loyalty of all the players of the Great Game. If there is an underlying imperialist self-aggrandisment (which I cannot deny), it is (in my opinion) forgivable as a representation of the real ethos of British India at the time.
Moore-Gilbert, B. J. Kipling and “Orientalism.” London: Croom Helm, 1986.
Moore-Gilbert, Bart J. “I am Going to Rewrite Kipling’s Kim: Kipling and Postcolonialism.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37.2 (2002): 39-58.
Rubin, David. After the Raj: British Novels of India Since 1947. Hanover & London: UP of New England, 1986.
Huenemann, Karyn. “From Lispeth to The Woman of Shamlegh: Rudyard Kipling, India, and Indian Women.” IUP Journal of Commonwealth Literature 1.1 (2009): 22-46.