The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Kim was written by Rudyard Kipling and first appeared as “Kim” (McClure’s, Dec. 1900-Oct. 1901). Kipling (1865-1936) was one of the dominant British popular writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Kim is arguably his finest novel-length work.
Kim is about Kimball O'Hara, the son of a British soldier in India. Kim is orphaned as a child and grows up on the streets of Lahore, where he is cared for only by an Indian woman who lets him run wild and do as he wishes. One day Kim meets Teshoo Lama, a Tibetan lama, and escorts him to a local museum. The two strike up a friendship and Kim decides to accompany the lama on his quest for the river of enlightenment. Kim begs for the lama and acts as his “chela,” or disciple. At the same time Kim is carrying a message from an agent of the British Secret Service to a British Colonel. This message, when delivered, helps avert a local rebellion. Kim finds the British regiment his father belonged to and is sent to a British school, where he is educated. Meanwhile Kim is recruited by the British Secret Service, and after three years he leaves school and carries out missions for the Secret Service. Eventually Kim rejoins his beloved Teshoo Lama and treks with him through the Himalayas. During the trip Kim helps foil a Russian spy mission. During the trip the lama is injured, and after a harrowing journey across the mountains Kim carries the lama back to safety and civilization. Kim and the lama heal, and the lama finds enlightenment.
As one of the best-known works of Victorian popular literature Kim has a well-earned reputation for entertainment. As time has passed Kim’s more problematic aspects have been cast into starker relief.
Purely as entertainment, and leaving aside its political and moral flaws, Kim is superb. Its charms are many. Kim is Kipling’s most successful novel-length work, and is the product of a craftsman with both heart and substantial skill. Kipling was better known in his lifetime for his work about India than any of his other work, and his portrayal of the post-Mutiny, pre-Gandhi India is sure-handed and utterly convincing–as much so, in its way, as Gustave Flaubert's Carthage in Salammbô. Kipling spent his first six years in India and viewed it as almost a paradise, a feeling he amply conveys in Kim. The level of local color and detail is perfectly done, neither too scanty nor overwhelming, and Kipling's use of Anglo-Indian dialect is sure-handed and wonderful. Some critics and some Indians have criticized the portrayal of India in Kim as inaccurate, and there is an undeniable element of sentimentality to Kipling's depiction of the land and its people. Other critics have tied Kipling’s portrayal of India to its post-Rebellion, pre-Independence state, so that the paradise that Kipling remembers and that he portrays in Kim is inextricably linked to the political and social oppression of the Indians. Still, Kipling’s portrayal of India is a sweet fantasy, and if Kipling erred he did so from the best of intentions.
The novel has a high level of craft about it. Though obviously influenced by Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in its portrayal of Kim as a free-but-lonely wanderer in a picaresque adventure, Kim goes in much different directions than Twain did. The style is of Kim is smooth and polished and has none of the torpid prolixity that can damage the modern reader's enjoyment of other Victorian novels. The narrative voice is strong, distinctive, and unique, although it may take some readers some time to adjust to it. Kipling maintains the tone and characterization flawlessly. He does not linger over matters the way Victor Hugo (Hunchback of Notre Dame) or James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans) do. Where they are long-winded, Kipling is precise; where they prolong scenes, he ends them quickly and possibly even too soon. Where they are overblown, he is understated.
The cast of characters is wonderful: Mahbub Ali, the wise, cynical Pathan horse dealer and British agent; Colonel Creighton, the British Secret Service commander in India; Teshoo Lama, the dotty and suitably unearthly lama in search of enlightenment; Lurgan Sahib, the healer of sick pearls; and Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, the irrepressible Bengali spy. These characters are all human and recognizable. Those who might be stereotypes, like Teshoo Lama or the Pathan horse dealer Mahbub Ali, are given depth and are characters rather than stereotypes. Kipling's humor is good-natured and lacking in mockery or cruelty; character traits rather than ethnicity are the source of humor in Kim. Nor does Kipling have a brief for Christianity over Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism. He is in fact much friendlier to the Buddhism of Teshoo Lama than he is to Catholicism and Christianity, neither of which come off particularly well in Kim.
Too, the novel has real feeling to it. The sentiment in Hugo and Cooper, among others, is overblown and will leave most modern readers unmoved. But the understated but nonetheless very real love between Kim and Teshoo Lama is genuinely affecting
But of course entertainment is not the beginning and end of a work of fiction. There is the question of its artistic value–and Edward Said, in his invaluable analysis of Kim, called the novel “a work of great aesthetic merit,”1 and Kipling clearly spent as much time crafting each sentence as Henry James did in Portrait of a Lady–and the question of its moral and political aspects, and this is where an understanding of and a judgment of Kim become less kind. Like Kipling himself Kim is controversial. Kipling is seen as the poet laureate of British Imperialism and Empire, a proponent of racism and bigotry, a water-carrier for traits and ethoi best forgotten, and so on, and Kim is viewed as, again in Said’s words, “the racist imagining of one fairly disturbed and ultra-reactionary imperialist.”2
A close reading of Kim does show that Kipling was not an ignorant, unthinking mouthpiece for Empire, and that his treatment of race and race relations is, if not nuanced, at least more thoughtful than his severest critics allege. Kipling's views on race are certainly those of a conservative member of and believer in Empire, circa 1901. Which is to say, he is not enlightened or progressive in modern terms. Kipling is a believer in essentialism: the “Oriental” is essentially one way (albeit, like H. Rider Haggard [She], made up of individual races and groups with their individual racial or group traits), and the Englishman is essentially another way–a view expressed strongly in Kim. Kipling, and Kim, believe that India is best governed not by Indians but by a small group of experienced and knowledgeable Englishman (Kipling was hostile to democracy for both Indians and English). Colonialism, for Kipling, is what is best for India, and the English are, on balance, superior to the Indians.
The reader, in other words, is forced to grapple with the age-old conundrum of politically/morally flawed art written by a politically/morally flawed author. Is Kim racist, colonialist, imperialist, paternalistic, stereotypical, and unrealistic? Or is it rich, sympathetic, colorful, and sensitive? Is Kim himself a proponent of colonialism, or someone caught within it and struggling the best he can to survive in it?
The answer is “yes.” A work of art can be many things at once, and a work’s good qualities do not cancel or justify its bad ones–nor do a work’s bad qualities negate the work’s good qualities. Kim is all of these things.
Of note is Kim’s role in the history of espionage fiction. Espionage was not well-respected in England during the nineteenth century, being seen with contempt, as the tawdry, sordid work of immoral, mercenary men. The popular fiction of the time reflected this attitude toward espionage. The story papers and dime novels of the mid- and late nineteenth century occasionally featured heroes who spied. But the authors of these stories always portrayed the hero as a gentleman who performed espionage out of noble patriotism, thus redeeming otherwise sordid behavior. The rise in cultural and political anxieties at the end of the century–the Fin-de-Siècle Unease–began to change the fictional approach to spying. Kim started a trend toward the amateur spy, a trend which would culminate in Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the most popular espionage story of the era. Despite being an early novel about espionage Kim handles the subject more interestingly than many later novels. The spy subplot is straightforward, but Kipling's treatment of it consistently holds the reader's interest. Because it is only a subplot, and not the main point of the novel--Kim is what Kipling called “a naked picaresque”3--the espionage aspects are not overdone or given undue attention. They are referred to enough to whet the reader’s appetite but never to sate it.
Equally interesting is Kim’s status as an anomalous work of English frontier fiction. One of the core conflicts of traditional (read: American) frontier fiction (read: the Western) is this: the frontier is inhabited by barbarians; barbarians can only be defeated by the gun; but all those who pick up the gun are barbarians; therefore those who defeat the barbarians cannot inhabit the newly-civilized frontier. In American frontier fiction, and especially in Western films (see, for example, John Ford’s The Searchers and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence) this means that after the hero has defeated the barbarians he must leave the newly civilized frontier. In English frontier fiction the hero who picks up the gun is not a barbarian and is allowed to return to civilization even after committing barbarous violence. (One reason for this is that in English frontier fiction barbarians are an irruption of evil into an ordinarily civilized status quo, the status quo that the protagonist comes from, and once the status quo is reinstated by the defeat of the barbarians, civilization reigns supreme and the gun-slinging hero can return to his home. In American frontier fiction barbarians–and the gun-slinging hero–are a part of a fallen, barbaric frontier world, and when the new, civilized status quo is imposed, the gun-slinging hero has no place in it). This was the case for Lorna Doone, and for other novels set in Commonwealth frontier settings, such as Scotland, Ireland, and Australia. But India is different, and Colonel Creighton, that would-be member of the Royal Geographical Society, is far closer to the traditional American taker-up-of-the-gun than he is to most English frontier heroes.
For all its many flaws Kim remains a potent work of Victorian popular fiction, what Edward Said called “large in perspective and strangely sensitive”4 and which Harold Bloom said “is one of the great instances in the language of a popular adventure story that is also exalted literature.”5
Print: Rudyard Kipling, Kim. New York: Penguin Classics, 2011.
For Further Research
Feroza Jussawalla, “(Re)reading Kim: Defining Kipling’s Masterpiece as Postcolonial.” Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 5, no. 2 (Fall 1998): 112-129.
Edward Said, “Introduction,” in Kim. New York: Penguin, 1987.
Philip E. Wegner, “‘Life as He Would Have It’: The Invention of India in Kipling’s ‘Kim.’” Cultural Critique no. 26 (Winter, 1993-1994): 129-159.
1 Edward Said, “Introduction,” in Kim (New York: Penguin, 1987), 30.
2 Said, “Introduction,” 30.
3 Qtd in Corinne McCutchan, “Rudyard Kipling,” British Children’s Writers, 1880-1914 (New York: Gale, 1994), 165.
4 Said, “Introduction,” 14.
5 Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” in Harold Bloom, ed., Edwardian and Georgian Fiction (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005), 26.