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Thompson The Critically Praised and the Mainstream: Rudyard Kipling’s Prose The reputations of many authors in history have declined, but some never lose their popularity. Rudyard Kipling is among these enduring writers. One of the reasons for this is that he was a man of unusual genius, another is the advantage he had of being exposed to what was then a new and exotic culture, and the strongest reason is that he wrote excellent stories for children. Some parents continue to read these stories to their children, and those who do not read the stories at least show their children Walt Disney’s version of The Jungle Book. Either way, each new generation becomes introduced to Kipling. However, Kipling’s stories for children are only a small part of his immense body of prose. Kipling is one of the few authors who attained mainstream popularity and the recognition of critics. In this analysis of Kipling’s prose, I will discuss the works which make him popular, The Jungle Book and the Just So Stories; and I will discuss the novels and short stories most commended by scholars, The Light That Failed, “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Without Benefit of Clergy,” and the novel considered to be his masterpiece, Kim. Kipling had the physical appearance of what today would be called a “nerd.” He was a small man with thick glasses that he had to wear all his life. But, as the many photographs of him show, his twinkling eyes, mustache, and teasing smile give his face tremendous character. His face shows the satisfaction of life experience, and that he had. Kipling, in his life, traveled to America, Canada, India, Japan, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, England, Brazil, France, and the West Indies. He was born in Bombay, India in 1865 to John Lockwood Kipling, author
of Beasts and Men in India, and Alice Macdonald Kipling; and he spent the first six years of his life there. After that, his parents sent him to Southsea in England, where he and his sister Alice (nicknamed “Trix”) stayed with guardians whom the children called “Uncle Harry” and “Aunty Rosa.” Aunty Rosa wanted a daughter, and she favored Trix over young Ruddy (Miller 3). This was a low point of Kipling’s childhood, and it is said that Mrs. Jennett, the cruel guardian of The Light That Failed, was modeled after Aunty Rosa. After five years and three months with Aunty Rosa, Kipling was sent to the United Services College (Carrington 10). When he was sixteen, he went back to India and spent seven years working at a newspaper. During this time he worked ten- to fifteen-hour days, but the knowledge that he acquired while an editor and reporter would inspire much of his later work, most of which centers on or alludes to India. At age twenty-six, Kipling married Caroline Balestier, sister of his friend Wolcott Balestier. Lucile Russell Carpenter writes, “She was not only an intellectual companion, but a competent and practical helpmate as well, and protected him from all distractions to which his sensitive nature was susceptible, thus making possible the full exercise of his creative gift” (69). Their happy marriage produced three children: Josephine, Elsie, and John. Josephine died of pneumonia in 1899, and Kipling himself almost died. He never recovered from the grief of losing his daughter, nor did he recover from the loss of his son, John, who was presumed dead at age eighteen when he went to France to fight in World War I. When Kipling was seventy years old, he died of a brain hemorrhage after a forty-four-year marriage and a prolific writing career. Certainly, in this prolific career, the work for which he is most famous is The Jungle Book. The stories of Mowgli in particular are significant in Kipling’s prose. Mother Wolf and Father Wolf, of course, find the “man-cub” in the jungle being hunted by Shere Khan, the tiger. The wolves raise him and give him the name “Mowgli the Frog,” and eventually he returns to
humanity after his childhood in the jungle. The Mowgli stories are characterized by childlike, endearing language, such as this: “A wolf accustomed to moving his own cubs can, if necessary, mouth an egg without breaking it, and though Father Wolf’s jaws closed right on the child’s back not a tooth even scratched the skin, as he laid it down among the cubs” (Kipling, Jungle 7). He attributes different human attributes to each animal, “making Baloo the bear a teacher and Kaa the serpent a friend” (Crofte-Cooke 56). As Crofte-Cooke also says of the animals, “They keep their terrible powers and their natural desires, being only gifted with certain extra qualities of logic and loyalty, being, like other characters in less imaginary stories, a little larger than life” (56). The Jungle Law is also a consideration of analysis by the adult reader. It is a simple, enduring set of rules to follow. In its simplicity, it is in some ways superior to human laws, especially because the only property disputes are the kill, which belongs to the wolf that did the killing, and the lair, which not even the Lords of the Jungle can enter without the permission of the wolf who lives in the lair. The jungle has leaders and councils, but no red tape. The one law that all animals fall under is the need of water. During the drought in “How Fear Came,” all the animals call a water truce, and predators do not attack prey. Also, as Kipling writes, “One of the beauties of Jungle Law is that punishment settles all scores. There is no nagging afterward” (Kipling, Jungle 64). All the originality and eloquence in The Jungle Book , as well as the deeper meanings involved, such as Mowgli’s life lessons taught to him by Baloo, Bagheera, and Mother and Father Wolf, make this collection of stories a classic. Kipling’s Just So Stories, also a collection for children, were another reason for his popularity. These stories include “How the Leopard Got His Spots” and “The Butterfly That Stamped.” Some of these stories, set in South Africa and Australia, give funny explanations for animal characteristics: titles include “How the Whale Got His Throat,” “How the Camel Got His
Hump,” and “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin.” For example, the leopard gets his spots because while he was hunting with man, the other animals changed their hide markings (the zebra became striped, etc.). The man, who wants to camouflage himself in the forest as the other animals had done, changes his skin color to black. Then he places his fingertips all over the leopard, making him spotted. Another tale from the Just So Stories, “The Butterfly That Stamped, simply involves a joke played by a king and queen on a lady butterfly and nine hundred and ninety-nine queens. These stories are not for analysis, however; they are simply for children’s, or adults’, amusement. Most of Kipling’s prose is not for children. Two of his short stories, “The Man Who Would Be King” and “Without Benefit of Clergy,” are hailed by critics as some of Kipling’s best work. “The Man Who Would Be King” deals with two men who go to Kafiristan, an undeveloped land without a learned culture, to become kings. These men take advantage of the people’s ignorance by allowing them to believe that the two men are gods. After Daniel Dravot is killed when he is exposed as a man instead of a god, his companion, Carnehan, goes mad. Carnehan, or “Peachey,” tells the narrator, a newspaper reporter, what the people did to him after they killed Dravot: “‘They crucified him, sir, as Peachey’s hand will show. They used wooden pegs for his hands and his feet, and he didn’t die. He hung there and screamed, and they took him down next day, and said it was a miracle that he wasn’t dead. They took him down--poor old Peachey that hadn’t done them any harm--that hadn’t done them any--” (Kipling, The Best 153). Kipling shows the man’s madness well, by having him refer to himself in the third person and speak in fragments. It is a story of imperialism on the part of two ignorant men, with an eerie parallel to Christianity and a morbid surprise at the end.
Another short story which has received scholarly approval is “Without Benefit of Clergy.” This is, primarily, a love story. Holden and Ameera fall in love and have a child who dies while still a baby. Their love becomes deeper through the shared experience of mourning. Holden says, “‘I love more because a new bond has come out of the sorrow that we have eaten together, and that thou knowest’” (Kipling, The Best 51). This could possibly be autobiographical, because Kipling and his wife had a happy marriage even though they lost two children. Holden also experiences profound joy when his son is born. Kipling gives the reader an intimate view into the heart of a new father, and then a grieving father. Elliot L. Gilbert did a study in which he observed the rituals in “Without Benefit of Clergy,” and he points out that rituals, such as prayers of protection for the child and the beheading of two goats for a “‘birth sacrifice” ultimately fail, and that “for all her prayers, . . . Ameera is no better served by the gods than she is by the laws of chance” (167-71). Both “The Man Who Would Be King” and “Without Benefit of Clergy” are tragedies, as is one of his novels, The Light That Failed. Kipling wrote this, which was not well received when it was published, when he was twenty-five. It was his first novel, and it centers on a relationship between Dick Heldar and a girl he calls Maisie. They meet as children and later part, but ten years later they meet again. Dick has been in India doing artwork for a newspaper. Maisie is trying to be an artist as well, and Dick tutors her. According to Betty Miller, the relationship between Dick and Maisie is composed of “love and hostility” and competition. After their reunion, they resume the competition via art (5). This is especially apparent with their paintings of the Melancolia. Although Dick is the one who tutors Maisie, he assumes the submissive role in their relationship. She is partly responsible for Dick’s “[reduction of] an over-confident, over-successful young man to darkness and to impotence: a condition which leaves this minor Samson no other
solution than to grope his way back to the battlefield, where, aspiring, like an aphrodisiac, the smell of gunpowder and slaughter, he achieves a self-sought death at the hands of his friend, the enemy” (Miller 5). James Harrison explains that three different kinds of light failed: “the light of love,” “art,” when Dick goes blind, and “presumably the escape into the world of action from Dick’s exclusive and equally unsuccessful attempts to find himself through art and through love” (78-81). However, his “escape into the world of action” does not actually fail; in fact, Dick accomplishes that which he wants. Dick, after he finds out that he and Maisie have no chance together and that he also has no chance to be a great artist due to his blindness, simply wants to die. He goes to India to die, because he considers India and ships his homes. Before he leaves for India, he burns all his sketchbooks, allows the Beetons to take some of his things, gives money to Bessie even though he knows that she ruined his Melancolia, and makes out a will, leaving everything to Maisie. Then, when he arrives on the ship, he says, “‘Oh, it’s good to be alive again!’” (Kipling, The Light 202). When he gets to India, he “fills his nostrils with the well-remembered smell of the East” (Kipling, The Light 203). When he dies, Kipling describes it as “the crowning mercy of a kindly bullet through his head” (Kipling, The Light 220). This novel is a bitter, grim tragedy at the end of which death is a welcome release from “the Wheel of Life,” a symbol alluded to many times in Kim, Kipling’s greatest achievement. Kim is the story of Kimball O’Hara, a boy who comes to maturity in India. He is a quick-thinking, energetic, curious boy. He does nothing but roam the streets and the bazars, and he relies on friends to provide him with food. He sleeps wherever he happens to be, usually on the ground. He meets a lama, who is a holy man from Tibet, and Kim goes on his pilgrimmage because it is like a new game. The old “Game” he had been playing was that of amateur spy. Mahbub Ali, a horse-dealer and Kim’s friend, would get Kim to relay messages to English men.
According to Angus Wilson, some liberal critics disapproved of Kipling’s use of the Game, while others tried to downplay it (51). The Russians, at the time, were a threat to India and England, but later the German threat forced them together (Wilson 52). But Kim, through his experiences with the lama, changed. At first he was absorbed in the Game: speaking in code, playing dumb (pretending not to know Creighton or where he lived), and wishing to have a price on his head as did many other men in the Game. However, by the end of the book and out of the deep love between Kim and the lama, Kim cared nothing about the game. He desperately wanted to be rid of the maps and papers from the kashti. Margaret Peeler Feeley agrees: “while many readers assume that Kim chooses the life of the secret service, Kipling, in fact, suggests that finally it disgusts him” (64). Besides being an adventure novel, Kim is a spiritual voyage that reaches its peak when the lama finds his sacred river. It also reveals the richness of the characters and atmosphere of India. Kipling’s prose can, as C.S. Lewis put it, “make one sick, sick to death, of the whole Kipling world” (99). Kipling defends the “excess of his art” (Lewis 101) in his autobiography: it was necessary that every word should tell, carry, weigh, taste, and, if need were, smell” (Kipling, Something 223). His prose can, because the body of work is vast, be overwhelming, but his genius cannot be denied. His work is inextricably tied to his life, with countless Indian allusions and the people and feelings he knew in his life. Rudyard Kipling, as a person, experienced great joy and perhaps greater sadness, but, as the lama in Kim says, “‘Just is the Wheel! Swerving not a hair.” Elsie Bainbridge, his daughter, not only remembers his gift for writing, but the fact that “I have letters from complete strangers saying how a poem or story has helped and encouraged them, or remembering some quiet kindness he had done them, long ago”
(Bainbridge 403). His prose shall continue to be read and celebrated: both that in the mainstream, and that in the scholarly realm.
Works Cited Bainbridge, Elsie. Epilogue. The Life of Rudyard Kipling. By C.E. Carrington. Garden City: Doubleday, 1955. Carrington, C.E. The Life of Rudyard Kipling. Garden City: Doubleday, 1955. Croft-Cooke, Rupert. Rudyard Kipling. Denver: Alan Swallow, 1948. Gilbert, Elliot L. “‘Without Benefit of Clergy’: A Farewell to Ritual.” Kipling and the Critics. Ed. Elliot L. Gilbert. New York: New York UP, 1965. 163-83. Harrison, James. Rudyard Kipling. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. 2 vols. Garden City: Doubleday, 1948. ---. Kim. London: Macmillan, 1953. ---. The Light That Failed. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1967. ---. “How the Leopard Got His Spots.” Kipling: A Selection of His Stories and Poems. 2 vols. Ed. John Beecroft. Garden City: Doubleday, 1956. 355-60. ---. “The Butterfly That Stamped.” Kipling: A Selection of His Stories and Poems. 2 vols. Ed. John Beecroft. Garden City: Doubleday, 1956. 393-400. ---. “The Man Who Would Be King.” The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling. Ed. Randall Jarrell. Garden City: Hanover House, 1961. 128-54. ---. “Without Benefit of Clergy.” The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling. Ed. Randall Jarrell. Garden City: Hanover House, 1961. 41-58. ---. Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown. Garden City: Doubleday, 1937. Lewis, C.S. “Kipling’s World.” Kipling and the Critics. Ed. Elliot L. Gilbert. New York: New York UP, 1965. 99-117.
Miller, Betty. “Kipling’s First Novel.” The Age of Kipling. Ed. John Gross. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972. 1-6. Peeler Feeley, Margaret. “The Kim That Nobody Reads.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 57-74. Russell Carpenter, Lucile. Rudyard Kipling: A Friendly Profile. Chicago: Argus Books, 1942. Wilson, Angus. “Kipling’s Kim.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 43-56.
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