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Author Biography
Plot Summary
Media Adaptations
Topics For Further Study
Historical Context
Compare & Contrast
Critical Overview
What Do I Read Next?
Further Reading

Rudyard Kipling


Rudyard Kipling was one of the most popular writers of his era, and his novel Kim, first published in 1901, has become one of his most well-known non-juvenile works.

The novel takes place at a time contemporary to the book's publication; its setting is India under the British Empire. The title character is a boy of Irish descent who is orphaned and grows up independently in the streets of India, taken care of by a "half-caste" woman, a keeper of an opium den. Kim, an energetic and playful character, although full-blooded Irish, grows up as a "native" and acquires the ability to seamlessly blend into the many ethnic and religious groups of the Indian subcontinent. When he meets a wandering Tibetan lama who is in search of a sacred river, Kim becomes his follower and proceeds on a journey covering the whole of India. Kipling's account of Kim's travels throughout the subcontinent gave him opportunity to describe the many peoples and cultures that made up India, and a significant portion of the novel is devoted to such descriptions, which have been both lauded as magical and visionary and derided as stereotypical and imperialistic.

Kim eventually comes upon the army regiment that his father had belonged to and makes the acquaintance of the colonel. Colonel Creighton recognizes Kim's great talent for blending into the many diverse cultures of India and trains him to become a spy and a mapmaker for the British army. The adventures that Kim undergoes as a spy, his endearing relationship with the lama, and the skill and craftsmanship of Kipling's writing have all caused this adventurous and descriptive—if controversial—novel to persist as a minor classic of historical English literature.

Author Biography

Poet, novelist, and short story writer Rudyard Kipling, the first English writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature, was the most popular literary figure of his time. He was born December 30, 1865, in Bombay, India, to John Lockwood Kipling and Alice MacDonald Kipling. John Lockwood Kipling, who was an anthropologist and curator, inspired the character of the Keeper of the Wonder-house in Kim.

Kipling spent his early childhood in India and was cared for by a Hindu nanny; as a young child he spoke Hindi. However, as was the custom of the time, at the age of six Kipling was sent to boarding school in Britain where he unfortunately was subjected to severe strictness and bullying. His poor eyesight kept him from advancing into a military career, so at the age of sixteen Kipling returned to his parents in Lahore, India, and began his career as a journalist, first at the Civil and Military Gazette (1882–1887) and then as a worldwide correspondent for the Pioneer (1887–1889). He became quite popular for his work, especially for his satirical and humorous verse. When he returned to England in 1889 at the age of twenty-four, he was already regarded as a national literary hero.

In 1892, Kipling married the American Caroline Balestier and moved to Vermont. Their two daughters, Josephine—who was to die at the age of six of pneumonia—and Elsie, were born here. The Kiplings returned to England in 1896; their only son, John, was born later that year. The Kiplings remained based in England and traveled regularly around the world.

Although Kipling did not live for a long period of time in India after his childhood and his early adult years, his love of India and interest in the subcontinent and his memories of the India of his childhood figured greatly in his writing. Kipling is best known for his works about India, most notably Kim, a novel that covers all corners of the continent and in which Kipling lavishly describes the many different cultures and native peoples of the empire. Published in 1901, Kim is widely regarded as his most mature and polished work.

Kipling was a prolific writer, and his skill at storytelling, his immensely readable and songlike verse, his refusal to mince words, and the strong sense of British patriotism that characterized his work made him immensely popular with the common readership. However, his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1907 was met with disapproval from other literary critics and writers, who considered him vulgar and lacking in craftsmanship.

The death of his son, John, during World War I, combined with failing health, affected Kipling's writing deeply. His output decreased dramatically after this period. He died on January 18, 1936, and is buried at Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Among Kipling's other most well-known works are Captains Courageous (1897), The First and Second Jungle Books, and the poems "If," "White Man's Burden," and "Recessional."

Plot Summary

Chapter 1

The novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling takes place in British India in the 1880s and 1890s. The novel opens with the introduction of the title character: Kim is a thirteen-year-old boy of Irish heritage who has been orphaned in India and raised by an opium den keeper in the city of Lahore, amid the myriad cultures of India. Because of the ability he has developed to blend in seamlessly among many different cultures through language and his broad knowledge of customs, Kim is known to his acquaintances as Friend of All the World.

Kim meets a Tibetan lama—a Buddhist—who has come to India in search of the Holy River that sprang from the arrow of the Buddha and which promises Enlightenment to its believers. The River proves elusive; even the learned museum curator at Lahore knows nothing of its location. Kim learns that the lama is traveling alone, as his chela, or follower and servant, died in the previous city. Seeing that the lama is an old man in need of assistance, Kim, dressed in the manner of a Hindu beggar child, agrees to be the lama's new chela and accompany the lama on his quest. He informs his friend and sometime guardian, Mahbub Ali, a well-known Afghan horse trader, that he will be leaving Lahore with the lama, and he agrees to carry some vague documents from Ali to an Englishman in Umballa as a favor. However, later that night Kim observes two sinister strangers searching Ali's belongings. Realizing that his favor to Ali smacks of danger, he and the lama, who remains ignorant of Kim's secret dealings, depart early for the road.

Chapter 2

On the train to Umballa, Kim and the lama meet a Hindu farmer and several other characters all representing an array of customs, languages, and religions from all over India, illustrating—as Kipling will often make a point of doing—the diversity of peoples that make up India's native population. Upon arriving in Umballa, Kim secretly seeks out the home of the Englishman—whom he discovers to be a colonel in the army—and delivers Ali's documents. He overhears word of an impending war on the border and realizes that Ali's documents were directly related to this development.

Chapters 3–4

The next day, Kim and the lama proceed to the outskirts of Umballa in search of the River, where they accidentally trespass in a farmer's garden. He curses them until he realizes that the lama is a holy man. Kim is angry at the farmer's abuses, but the lama teaches him not to be judgmental, saying, "There is no pride among such who follow the Middle Way." In the evening they are entertained by the headmaster and priest of a village. Kim, who loves to play jokes and games, pretends he is a prophet and "forsees" a great war with eight thousand troops heading to the northern border, drawing on what he had heard in Umballa. An old Indian soldier, who had fought on the British side in the Great Mutiny of 1857, calls Kim's claims to question until Kim makes an accurate description of the colonel—which convinces the soldier of his authenticity.

The old soldier, with renewed respect, accompanies Kim and the lama the next morning to the Grand Trunk Road. During their journey, the lama preaches to the soldier the virtues of maintaining detachment from worldly items, emotions, and actions in order to attain Enlightenment; however, when the lama goes out of his way to entertain a small child with a song, the soldier teases him for showing affection. It is the first evidence of the lama's truly human struggle with maintaining distance from his human emotions.

Media Adaptations

  • Kim was adapted as a film in 1950. Directed by Victor Saville, it starred Errol Flynn as Mahbub Ali and Dean Stockwell as Kim. It was released as a VHS recording in 1996 and on DVD in 2003.
  • In 1984, a made-for-television movie adaptation of Kim was released in the UK, starring Peter O'Toole as the lama and directed by John Howard Davies. It was released as a VHS recording in 1996.
  • An unabridged audio recording of Kim is available through It is read by Margaret Hilton and was originally recorded in 1988.

Eventually, the small party comes upon the Grand Trunk Road, a fifteen-hundred-mile-long route constructed by the East India Company that connected east Calcutta, East Bengal, and Agra. A vivid, detailed description of the masses of travelers is given, including descriptions of several different religious sects, including Sansis, Aklai Sihks, Hindus, Muslims, and Jains, as well as the various wedding and funeral processions marching along the road. This section provides yet another instance of Kipling's travelogue-type digressions to paint a vivid picture of India for his British and American readership. Kim is utterly delighted by the masses of people traveling before his eyes. The lama, however, remains deep in meditation and does not acknowledge the spectacle of life surrounding him.

In the late evening, Kim, utilizing his sharp wit and cunning, procures the aid of a rich old widow from Kulu, herself of a sharp and salty tongue, who is traveling in a royal procession from the northern lands to her daughter in the south. She offers food, shelter, and care for the lama in exchange for the holy man's charms and prayers interceding for the birth of many future grandsons for her.

Chapter 5

While resting along the Grand Trunk Road, Kim comes upon an English army regiment, which bears a green flag with a red bull on it. Since he was a young child, Kim had been told by his guardian that his father—a former soldier—had said that a red bull in a green field would be Kim's salvation. With excitement at having found the sign of the bull, he sneaks into the barracks to find out more information, only to be captured by the Protestant chaplain, Mr. Bennett. Together with Father Victor, the Catholic chaplain, he discovers the personal documents that Kim carries with him everywhere, which reveal him to be not a Hindu beggar but an Irish boy—and the son of Kimball O'Hara, who himself had been a member of this same regiment. Seeing that he is white and the son of a soldier, the chaplains do not allow Kim to continue on as a servant to a Buddhist monk. Kim stays reluctantly with the regiment, and the lama takes his leave abruptly, saying only that he must continue on his Search.

Chapters 6–8

Kim is put under watch of a drummer boy, who, having been born and raised in England, holds Kim and everything having to do with India in contempt, and subjects Kim to verbal and physical abuses. Kim, nevertheless, manages to easily outsmart the boy and procure a letter-writer to send word to Mahbub Ali of his whereabouts. Later, Father Victor shows Kim a letter from the lama indicating that he will pay for Kim's education at the Catholic school of St. Xavier's—a school for Sahibs, or white men. Kim is inconsolable at the thought of the lama traveling without him and fending for himself.

Mahbub Ali comes to Kim after receiving his letter. Seeing the good in Kim's future schooling, he tries to convince Kim that is it for the best, for, as he says to Kim, "Once a Sahib, always a Sahib," indicating that he should not only learn the ways of his own people but take advantage of the privilege that being a Sahib has to offer.

Colonel Creighton, the English colonel whom Kim first secretly encountered in Umballa, shows up. After conversing with Ali about Kim's peculiar history, he shows an interest in Kim's welfare and schooling. He accompanies Kim to Lucknow—the location of St. Xavier's—and gently plies Kim with questions, revealing indirectly that he has a keen interest in ascertaining Kim's suitability for future employment as a spy.

Upon arrival at St. Xavier's, Kim encounters the lama, who says that he is staying at a Jain temple in Benares and that he is helping Kim financially in order to acquire spiritual merit. His voice, however, betrays feelings of tenderness.

Kim's first year at St. Xavier's is skimmed over in the narration. The scene quickly skips to summer vacation, during which Kim has decided, against Creighton's wishes, he will take to the road. He dons the disguise of a Hindu beggar child and eventually meets up with Mahbub Ali, who takes him in as an assistant. Kim reveals to Ali his knowledge that the documents he had delivered to Creighton in Umballa had directly related to the war at the northern border. They reach an unspoken understanding between them that Ali serves as a spy for the British Army in what he calls the Great Game and that Kim is in training to become such a spy. Historically, the Great Game was a colloquial term for the espionage network across British India working to protect the northern border from invasion from Russia.

Later in the horse camp, Kim overhears two strangers looking for and plotting against Mahbub Ali. Kim proceeds to warn the horse trader, saving his life.

Chapters 9–10

Kim is sent, per Creighton's instructions, to the home of the antiques and jewel dealer, Lurgan Sahib, who is another "player" in the Great Game. Lurgan Sahib is a hypnotist and a master of disguise. He, along with his servant, a small Hindu boy, teaches Kim to master many mind games to train his powers of quick observation, in preparation for his future work as a "chain-man" in the spy network. Another key chain-man, the Bengali Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, visits Lurgan Sahib and Kim and approves of Kim's potential and progress in his training. Mookerjee returns Kim to Lucknow and presents him with the gift of a medicine toolkit.

Kim completes his next year at St. Xavier's with great success as a student. He spends his summer holidays working as an assistant to Mahbub Ali and his Christmas holiday continuing his training with Lurgan Sahib.

After Kim returns for his third year of school, Mahbub Ali and Lurgan Sahib convince Creighton that Kim is ready, at the age of sixteen, to be discharged from school and put into chain-man training directly in the field. After he is discharged from school, Kim is taken to Huneefa, a blind prostitute and a sort of sorceress, who puts him in an authentic disguise as a young Buddhist priest and places a charm against devils upon him. Kim is also provided with all of the trade tools of a chain-man, and Mookerjee informs him of the secret code for recognizing another chain-man, or "Son of the Charm." Kim has officially been initiated into the network.

Chapters 11–12

Kim, now completely alone and having been schooled as a Sahib but then thrust into the world in the guise of a Buddhist priest, begins to question what his identity is and where he belongs, asking, "Who is Kim—Kim—Kim?" a question that will remain with him. Kim travels to Benares to meet his holy lama. On the way, he encounters a Punjabi farmer who, seeing Kim in the guise of a priest, begs help for his sick child. Kim cures the child with medicines from his kit. Upon reaching the temple where the lama is lodging, he is ecstatic to be reunited with the lama and to continue upon the quest for the Holy River. The lama shows Kim a piece of artwork that has been occupying his time: the Wheel of Life, an intricate, complex chart he has drawn in great detail, illustrating the cycle of life that traps the soul. The lama, ever intent upon attaining Enlightenment and thus escaping the Wheel of Life, carries the chart with him constantly.

On the train, Kim encounters E23, a chain-man in the disguise of a Mahratta, who, having intercepted enemy documents, is under hot pursuit. Kim puts his training as a master of disguise to use and, in order to protect E23, transforms him into a Saddhu—a member of a sect of ascetic priests. The lama, who knows nothing of Kim's training as a spy, believes that Kim has acquired the ability to cast spells and charms, and he warns Kim against using his powers for prideful reasons. Kim and the lama enter a discussion about the virtues of action versus inaction. While the lama advises Kim to abstain from "Doing" except to acquire merit towards Enlightenment, Kim responds that "to abstain from action is unbefitting a Sahib." The lama answers, "There is neither black nor white.... We be all souls seeking to escape."

The old woman whom Kim and the lama had previously encountered on the Grand Trunk Road hears of the lama's proximity and summons him to her home to request further blessings from the lama for her grandchildren. Here, Kim finds Mookerjee waiting for him in the guise of a hakim, or healer. Mookerjee reveals to Kim the details of the spy mission that has been occupying the Great Game for the past few years: the northern border is being jeopardized by five kings who rule over the independent regions bordering British India and are believed to be allying with the Russians, thus creating a significant security hazard for the British Empire. Mookerjee has been enlisted to intercept two Russian spies in the northern hill country and relieve them of their documents. He asks Kim to help him. Kim, eager to participate in the Great Game, convinces the lama to travel to the northern countries.

Chapters 13–14

Finally having reached the northern lands, Kim finds the cold, wet weather and the dramatically hilly landscape difficult to travel; however, the lama is happy to be back in a region and environment familiar to him. All the while, Mookerjee has been stalking the two enemy spies, who turn out to be a Frenchman and a Russian. He eventually crosses their path and introduces himself to the spies as a welcoming emissary from the Rajah of Rampur, offering them his services and hospitality as a guide through the hill country. His true aim, of course, is to knock the spies off their course and relieve them of their secret documents before they are delivered into enemy hands.

Mookerjee leads the spies as if he is a travel guide and happens upon Kim and the lama, who is expounding on his Wheel of Life. One of the spies demands that the lama sell him his drawing of the Wheel. When the lama refuses, the spy reaches out to grab the paper and rips it, much to the chagrin of the lama, who in anger rises and threatens the spy with his lead pencase—inciting the Russian spy to punch him full in the face. Kim immediately tackles the Russian spy and beats him, while the spies' servants—who are Buddhists and therefore enraged at the attack on a holy man—drive away the French spy and run off with the luggage.

Kim, leaving the spies to the care of Mookerjee, convinces the servants that the luggage, being the possession of two evil men, is cursed. He obtains the package with the secret documents and heads to Shamlegh-under-the-snow for shelter, where they stay with the Woman of Shamlegh.

The lama, meanwhile, is shaken at his inability to resist his passions and at his gross display of attachment to his artwork and to his emotions. The excitement and worry have made him ill. In his illness he spends much time in meditation and, after a few days, informs Kim that he has seen "The Cause of Things": his bodily desire to return to the hills caused him to abandon his search for the River; his act of giving into his desire led him to further give in to his passions and attack the spy—thus moving farther and farther from his quest on the Way to Enlightenment. Having come to this conclusion, the lama demands that he be taken back to the lowlands of India to continue his search for the Holy River.

The woman of Shamlegh, in spite of receiving gentle rebuke from Kim for her attempts to seduce him, provides a litter to carry the lama back through the hills and food for their journey. Kim kisses her on the cheek at his departure and, as a gift to her, reveals that he is not a priest but a Sahib. Kim and the lama, who is now ill, continue on the road, Kim with the intercepted documents hidden in his luggage.

Chapter 15

Kim and the convalescent lama travel for over twelve days and return to the home of the old woman of Kulu, where Kim collapses into a feverish illness. The old woman nurses him out of his illness, for which he is grateful. Having acquired many father figures throughout his journeys, he has now acquired a true mother figure. Mookerjee, hearing that Kim is awake and well, relieves him of the secret documents and proceeds to deliver them to the Colonel.

Coming out of his fever and suddenly relieved of the burden of the secret documents, Kim is overcome by a sense of displacement that has visited him several times throughout his travels. He repeats to himself, "I am Kim. What is Kim?" At this point, he experiences an epiphany of his existence. Having previously seen himself as detached and somewhat alienated from the world, he comes to a feeling of utter belonging among all people.

Meanwhile, during Kim's illness, the lama, having foregone food for two days and nights in the pursuit of meditation, has attained the Enlightenment he has been seeking. He relates to Kim how his soul released itself from his body, how he flew up to the Great Soul to meditate upon The Cause of Things. However, a concern came to him suddenly regarding Kim's well-being, and so, for Kim's sake, his soul returned to his body and landed, headlong, in the Holy River of his seeking. He declares his Search is over and that he has attained Deliverance from sin for both himself and his beloved chela.



The son of the local sweetmeats seller, Abdullah is one of Kim's playmates in Lahore.

Mahbub Ali

Known throughout India as the most famous horse trader, Mahbub Ali, characterized by his red beard and his quick temper, is a devout Muslim from Afghanistan and a close friend to Kim. It is he who bestowed Kim with his moniker "Friend of All the World." While in public Ali is a horse trader, in secret he is a chain-man, or a spy, who works in close collaboration with Colonel Creighton in what he calls the Great Game—the intricate system of espionage the British government used to maintain the security of British India's northernmost borders. At the opening of the novel, Ali entrusts a packet of secret documents to Kim for delivery to Colonel Creighton. It is this action that starts Kim in the direction of becoming a chainman himself. During Kim's vacations from school, he works as an assistant to Mahbub and apprentices with him in the ways of espionage. Like many of the other male characters, Mahbub Ali is a surrogate father figure to Kim.

The Amritzar Girl

A courtesan whom Kim and the lama encounter on the train to Umballa, she graciously pays for their ticket fare, ensuring them safe passage.

The Arain Farmer

Kim and the lama accidentally trespass on his land as they leave the town of Umballa. His coarse treatment of them, and Kim's subsequent judgment upon him, leads the lama to one of several important sermons on Buddhist practice.

The Babu

See Hurree Chunder Mookerjee

Reverend Arthur Bennett

The Protestant chaplain for the Maverick Irish regiment in India, Mr. Bennett discovers Kim snooping around the barracks and uncovers his identity as the son of a deceased fellow soldier, Kimball O'Hara. Kipling's unsavory portrayal of Mr. Bennett, who is coarse and ignorant of the customs of India, represents his lifelong disapproval of Christian missionary work in India.

Colonel Creighton

Colonel Creighton is a British officer of the army and the supervisor of the "chain men" who work as spies along British India's northern border. Creighton sees that Kim has potential as a spy, and he takes a keen interest in procuring education and training for the boy.

The Curator

The kindly British keeper of the anthropological museum in Lahore, the Curator is also called the "Keeper of the Wonder House." The lama comes to him for guidance in finding the Holy River; he is unable to give guidance but presents the lama with an indispensable pair of reading glasses.

The Drummer Boy

Described as a fat boy of fourteen years with freckles, the drummer boy of the regiment has the job of keeping Kim from running away from the army barracks. He is ignorant of the ways of the native people of India and has a hatred for the country and its people, and he refers to them in derisive language.


Kim encounters E23, a chain-man, on a train being hotly pursued by enemies. Kim uses his spy training to disguise E23 as a Saddhu, thus saving the man's life and acquiring his first taste of life as a spy.

The French Spy

The French spy accompanies the Russian spy on a mission to deliver enemy documents, only to be waylaid by Kim, the lama, and Mookerjee.

The Hindu Farmer

A kindly farmer from Umballa, he offers Kim and the lama lodging and food during their stay in his town.

Hindu Servant

When Kim initially arrives at Lurgan Sahib's home for his apprenticeship, Sahib's young servant boy grows jealous and attempts to harm Kim. Later, he becomes Kim's tutor in mastering various aspects of the craft of espionage.


A blind prostitute, Huneefa is also an expert in disguise as well as a sort of soothsayer. At Mahbub Ali's behest, she outfits Kim in his first chain-man disguise as a Buddhist monk, and she casts several good luck spells over him.


Kim is the title character of the novel. Born in Lahore, India, Kim is orphaned as a baby after his Irish mother dies in childbirth and his father, a soldier in an Irish regiment, slowly dies of an opium addiction. He is raised by the keeper of an opium den in the streets of Lahore. Kim is characterized by a sharp tongue, a tireless wit, a powerful sense of observation, and a keen sense of humor, as well as an untiring appetite for playing pranks and games of wit and trickery. Although he is a white child, he grows up as a "native," with the uncanny ability to blend in to any of the many cultural and religious groups that make up the Indian population—an ability that earns him the moniker "The Friend of All the World." This uncanny ability, together with his sharp, conniving nature, makes him a prime candidate for becoming a spy for the British government.

The novel develops along two interconnecting threads of Kim's life from age thirteen to seventeen: his adventures as he traverses India both as the servant of Teshoo Lama, a Tibetan monk, and as a spy-in-training for the British government, and his eventual hand in saving British India from a Russian invasion; and his conflicted identity as both a "Sahib"—a member of the white ruling class in India—and a child born and bred as an Easterner. This sense of displacement and identity loss comes to Kim when he is removed from the company of Indians whom he has known all his life and placed for three years in a Western, Catholic school, where he masters the culture, academic knowledge, and language of the British rulers.

This sense of displacement overcomes Kim several times throughout the novel; however, the novel concludes with Kim's experience of an epiphany: Having previously seen himself as detached and somewhat alienated from the world, he comes to a feeling of belonging among all people.

Chota Lal

Chota Lal is one of Kim's playmates in Lahore, prior to his departure as a servant of the lama.

Teshoo Lama

Teshoo Lama, the second most important character of the novel, is Kim's master, guardian, father figure, and companion throughout most of the novel, who both cares for Kim and is cared for by Kim. A Buddhist abbot from Tibet, he has come to India in search of the Holy River that sprang from the arrow of the Lord Buddha. Kim accompanies him as his servant throughout the whole of India. While Kim is constantly enchanted by the myriad of people they encounter in their travels, the lama remains fixedly detached from any interest in humanity or the machinations of human life. He spends his time in meditation, and he interacts with his fellow travelers only to preach the ways of Buddhism to them: specifically, that all souls are equal, that all souls are trapped in the cycle of life, and that the only way to escape the cycle of life is through detachment from all things worldly. However, although he strives for utter detachment, the lama occasionally slips and reveals his true affection for his servant, Kim, who likewise adores his master.

The lama carries with him an intricately drawn chart mapping of the Wheel of Life—a symbolic representation of the cycle of life that, according to Buddhist teaching, all souls strive to escape from in order to be reunited with the Great Soul. However, the lama struggles throughout his pilgrimage to remain on the path to Enlightenment and to let go of the attachments of the world, specifically his emotions and bodily desires. The climax of the novel is reached when a Russian spy, desiring the lama's Wheel of Life, rips it from his hands and incites the lama to violence. These actions lead the lama to the absolute realization that he is not free of the emotions of pride and desire. Through this realization, he attains the Enlightenment he has been so strenuously seeking.

In a twist of spiritual irony, his love for Kim leads him not to escape to the Great Soul but to selflessly remain with Kim until his well-being is assured.


See The Woman of Shamlegh

Lurgan Sahib

Lurgan Sahib is a "half-caste" and a chain-man in the Great Game. He is a jeweler, an antique dealer, and a master of hypnotism and disguise. Kim is sent to Lurgan Sahib as an apprentice in order to learn the craft of espionage.

Hurree Chunder Mookerjee

Also known as The Babu, Mookerjee is a Bengali and a chain-man in the Great Game. He holds several Western degrees and is an anthropological expert. When he is not explicitly performing spy work, he collects information on various cultural and religious practices across India, for the purpose of anthropological study.

Mookerjee assists in Kim's training as a chainman throughout the novel and officially initiates him into the brotherhood of the Sons of the Charm. When it is discovered that Russian spies are attempting to organize a breach of the northern border, it is Mookerjee who, with the help of Kim, intercepts their documents and thwarts their mission.

Kimball O'Hara

O'Hara is the deceased father of Kim, previously a soldier in an Irish regiment in India and the victim of a debilitating opium addiction. Upon his death, Kim is orphaned and left to the streets of Lahore.

The Old Soldier

Kim encounters the old soldier outside of Umballa. A retired soldier who commands the respect of the local Sahibs for his service in the Great Mutiny of 1857, he serves as Kim and the lama's guide to the Grand Trunk Road.

The Old Woman of Kulu

Kim and the lama first encounter the old woman on the Grand Trunk Road. She is a wealthy widow from the hill country. A salty-tongued character, she is taken by Kim's ability to match her wit. Kim and the lama are the recipients of her hospitality on numerous occasions. When Kim falls ill, she nurses him back to health, becoming not just a benefactress but a mother figure to the orphaned Kim.

The Opium Den Keeper

After the death of Kimball O'Hara, the woman who kept the opium den where he met his demise was left to care for young Kim from the age of three to thirteen.

The Punjabi Farmer

Kim, disguised as a Buddhist priest, is begged by the Punjabi farmer to heal his sick child. Kim uses his medicine kit to cure the child, thereby earning the gratitude of the farmer. In thanksgiving, he serves as Kim's companion for a brief time.

The Russian Spy

One of two spies who breach the northern border in order to deliver enemy documents, the Russian spy picks a fight with the lama after he refuses to sell him a precious drawing. During the ensuing fight, Kim and Mookerjee manage to procure the enemy documents.

Father Victor

The Catholic chaplain of the Maverick Irish regiment in India, he is instrumental in obtaining an education for Kim at St. Xavier's school.

The Woman of Shamlegh

The Woman of Shamlegh takes Kim and the lama into her home after they are attacked by the Russian spies. She makes a failed attempt to seduce Kim. Like most of the women portrayed in Kim, Lispeth presents a dual nature: both caretaker and temptress.


Equality and Unity

The ideal of the equality and unity of men echoes across several motifs in Kim, most notably through the Buddhist teachings of Teshoo Lama. He tells Kim, "To those who follow the Way there is neither black nor white, Hind nor Bhotiyal. We be all souls seeking to escape." This ideal of the equality and unity of men transcends the stringent caste, or class, distinctions of the predominantly Hindu society that Kim has known.

The lama carries with him a diagram called the Wheel of Life, which is a symbolic representation of the Buddhist doctrine that all lives are equally bound in the cycle of life and that all souls seek release from this cycle by attaining Enlightenment. The numerous references to the Wheel of Life throughout the novel serve to reinforce the message of equality and unity. The lama's teachings and his quest for Enlightenment are never the subject of Kipling's criticism, as are other religious beliefs presented in Kim; rather, the resolution of the novel includes the lama's triumphant attainment of Enlightenment, which serves to authenticate, rather than disprove, the doctrine of equality and unity echoed throughout.

Kipling also uses the theme of unity to portray an ideal India that is not divided by imperialism but rather is unified under it. This is especially evident in the relationships between the characters who participate in the Great Game: Mahbub Ali, an Afghan; Lurgan Sahib, a person of "mixed" race; Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, a Bengali; and Colonel Creighton, an Englishman, an officer, and therefore a member of the ruling class. Despite their disparate backgrounds, all these characters are united in a tight brotherhood of espionage that functions specifically to protect the interests of the British Empire in India. It is especially significant that Kipling shows both British and Indian characters alike operating on an equal basis for the good of the empire. This serves to promote an idealized, unrealistic portrayal of a specifically united, inclusive British India.


John A. McClure writes in his essay "Kipling's Richest Dream," "In Kim ... brotherhood and despotism keep uneasy company." In other words, the finely crafted portrayal of unity and equality Kipling develops between "native" and "Sahib" conflicts with the unavoidable fact that the British are the governing class, and the Indians are the governed. Kipling, however, presents the imperialist presence in India as unquestionably positive. This is done most effectively through the main plot of the novel—the endeavors of Indian and British spies to protect the northern border of British India from the encroachment of Russia, thus protecting the imperial interests of the British Empire. It is especially significant that Indian spies are shown protecting British interests. In this way, Kipling constructs an India in which the native population supports the British Empire and thus presents Britain's imperialist presence as a positive good.


In recent years, orientalism has come to be defined as the knowledge and beliefs about the peoples of "the Orient"—that is, of the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia—as constructed and imposed by their Western European colonizers. Many of the observations of Indian life presented in Kim as fact are derogatory stereotypes, derived from such orientalists' beliefs.

For example, Edward Said writes in his introduction to Kim:

Sihks are characterized as having a special 'love of money'; Hurree Babu equates being a Bengali with being fearful; when he hides the packet taken from the foreign agents, the Babu 'stowed the entire trove about his body, as only Orientals can.'

These derogatory ethnic stereotypes are sharply contrasted with Kipling's portrayals of the British and British culture as more advanced. For example, when Lurgan Sahib attempts to hypnotize Kim, Kim recites the multiplication tables he learned at English school to resist—sharply symbolizing Kipling's belief in the advancement of British law over the superstitious ways of the Asians. Such contrasts throughout Kim serve to support and justify the rule of the "more capable" British over the Indian people.


The character of Kim is placed in a predicament of identity: Kim, an Irish orphan, grows up in the streets of the Indian city of Lahore and adapts to the culture and languages of India—so well, in fact, that he can pass himself off as a member of almost any religious or cultural group of India. He is at once a Sahib and, by virtue of his upbringing, a part of the colonized society.

Kim, who is known as "Friend of All the World" and includes "this great and beautiful land" as all his people, begins to undergo a crisis of identity when he is first made to go to school to become a Sahib.

This question of identity and belonging plagues Kim throughout the novel, leaving him with a feeling of loneliness. Although Kim's conflict of identity is brought about by being suddenly thrust into the British culture, it is significant that Kipling does not make Kim's identity crisis one in which he must choose between living as a Sahib—the member of the governing class—and as a "native—a member of the governed. Through Kim's eventual ability to reconcile both, Kipling symbolizes his larger ideal of a unified British India.

Topics For Further Study

  • Modern readers of Kim will find many of the descriptions of the Indian people throughout the novel grossly stereotypical. In Kipling's day, it was deemed factual and common knowledge by Westerners that Asiatic peoples were, on the whole, lazy, superstitious, and conniving, and these myths are repeated and perpetuated throughout Kim. Although our modern society is much more sensitive to the inaccuracies and harmfulness of cultural and racial stereotypes, there still persist stereotypical representations of Asians in popular culture. What other examples of racial or cultural stereotyping can you identify in our culture?
  • Many scholars argue that Kim is a novel motivated by masculinity: All of the main characters are male, and females show up largely as plot devices. How do the male characters in Kim regard women? How are women portrayed? What do you think Kipling's portrayal of women in Kim reflects about his attitudes towards women?
  • India is the location of the origin of many of the Eastern world's major religions. India is also home to numerous religious sects, many of which are mentioned in Kim. Choose a sect with which you are unfamiliar, and research the history and primary beliefs of this sect.
  • Much of Kim is set along the Grand Trunk Road, which was a main highway that crossed the Indian subcontinent. This highway has played a major role in the history of India. Research the history of the Grand Trunk Road. Where did it come from? What importance has it played over the centuries?


One of Kim's major plotlines is the quest for Enlightenment undertaken by Teshoo Lama. While the lama faces both external and internal obstacles to fulfilling his quest, the novel culminates with his triumphant attainment of his goal. The novel is threaded throughout with the lama's Buddhist spirituality and teachings; and while many of the characters, including Kim, question and are mystified by his philosophies, the lama's success at attaining Enlightenment at the end of the novel serves to validate the authenticity and truth of his messages.

In marked contrast to the validation of Buddhism in Kim is a censure of Christianity, as represented by Father Victor and the Reverend Bennett. Unlike the lama, who inspired Kim's complete adoration, the Christian chaplains are portrayed as ignorant and undignified, therefore inspiring Kim's disgust. Although the chaplains try to convert Kim to Christianity, he remains devoted to his Buddhist master. This symbolic "defeat" of Christianity can be read as evidence of Kipling's lifelong loathing of Christianity and missionary work in India.

Women and Treachery

Kim is a markedly male story, featuring an all-male cast of characters and focusing on traditionally male relationships: that of Master and Student and the initiation of Kim into a brotherhood—the Sons of the Charm. The women characters factor mostly as plot devices. The old woman of Kulu provides a place for Kim and the lama to rest, as does the Woman of Shamlegh.

However, even though women play a very minor role in the novel, the representation of women denotes a regard for women as treacherous obstacles to the goals of men, be they spiritual pursuits or political games. For example, the lama complains that the old woman of Kulu has derailed him from his Search: "Take note, my chela, that even those who would follow the Way are thrust aside by idle women!" Kim is likewise warned of the machinations of women by his other father figure, Mahbub Ali, during his training as a spy: "Mahbub was exact to point out how Huneefa [a prostitute] and her likes had destroyed kings."

The absence of women from most of the novel, therefore, not only creates a sense that spiritual quests and adventures in travel are the realm of men but that it is an absolute necessity for the success of the male characters in being successful in their goals.



An epigraph is a piece of writing that is used at the beginning of a work to set the tone of that work or to highlight thematic elements. Each chapter of Kim opens with an epigraph. Kipling prefaces each chapter with an excerpt of verse, many of which are taken from his own works. For example, chapter 5 is the chapter in which Kim is reunited with his father's army regiment and therefore with his own people. The chapter is prefaced by an excerpt from the poem "The Prodigal Son":

Here I come to my own again
Fed, forgiven and known again
Claimed by bone of my bone again,
And sib to flesh of my flesh!
The fatted calf is dressed for me,
But the husks have greater zest for me . . .
I think my pigs will be best for me,
So I'm off to the styes afresh.

The excerpt tells of a person who is not at home with his own people and thus sets the tone for the chapter in which Kim struggles with the alien British language and culture.


Kim's plot, based on a pilgrimage, a quest, and the adventures of international espionage, by nature encompasses a vast geographic setting; almost the entirety of the Indian subcontinent is covered. Kipling uses Kim's vast travels to provide his readership with detailed descriptions of the widely varied landscape of India, as well as of the native inhabitants. His numerous digressions into travelogue-type accounts reveal a narrative voice aimed at a specific audience: that of the English in Great Britain. India was the largest and most lucrative possession of the British Empire, and the British in England remained fascinated with exotic portrayals of the subcontinent, which Kipling provides with the expert eye of a former resident.


An epiphany is a sudden revelation experienced by a character, often representing resolution of an internal conflict. Kim, plagued throughout the novel by a feeling of displacement and a confusion of identity, has an epiphanic moment at the end of the novel as he is coming out of illness:

With almost an audible click he felt the wheels of his being lock anew on the world without. Things that rode meaningless on the eyeball an instant before slide into proper proportion.... They were all real and true . . . clay of his clay, neither more nor less.

This sudden sense of understanding—his epiphany—helps Kim come to a sense of belonging, thus resolving one conflict presented in the plot.

Another epiphany occurs when a Russian spy rips the lama's Wheel of Life from his hands, which incites the lama to violence. Because of these actions, the lama comes to the absolute realization that he is not free of the emotions of pride and desire. This realization helps him to attain the Enlightenment he has been so strenuously seeking.

Historical Context

British Imperialism in India: Its Intellectual Roots and the Role of Orientalism

When Kim was published in 1901, the British Empire was still the most powerful empire in the world. The Indian subcontinent was one of the most important parts of the empire, which thousands of "Anglo-Indians," like Kipling himself, called home.

Imperialism was not just the practice of the British Empire's acts of colonization of other lands and people; imperialism was a philosophy that assumed the superiority of British civilization and therefore the moral responsibility to bring their enlightened ways to the "uncivilized" people of the world. This attitude was taken especially towards nonwhite, non-Christian cultures in India, Asia, Australia, and Africa.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1890s: English readers were fascinated by portrayals of "exotic" British colonies like India, written primarily by British writers such as Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster, which offered depictions of India from the perspective of the British colonizer.

    Today: Ethnic Indian writers and novelists writing in English, such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, offer today's English-language readership award-winning work portraying the life and culture of India from an Indian perspective.

  • 1890s: The practice of British imperialism reflects a racist belief of white, British superiority over the non-white nations of the world, rationalizing their government-sanctioned conquest and rule of other races. A need for knowledge about the peoples that Britain was governing led to the study and classification of the non-Christian, nonwhite races governed under the British Empire. Such studies offer the West a wealth of translations of writings from India and knowledge of religious practices; but it also has the effect of lumping together diverse groups of people into a generalized, homogenous group that was characterized as "needing" governance.

    Today: In 1978, the scholar Edward Said named the definitions, generalities, and stereotypes placed by the imperialistic West on the diverse cultures and peoples of the East—from the Middle East to the Far East—"Orientalism." Said's breakthrough studies on the objectification of Eastern lands and cultures by the imperialistic West are part of the pioneering efforts of sociological scholarship and theory today known as postcolonial studies, which have made lasting inroads into recognizing, and thereby dismantling, harmful, inaccurate generalizations that persist in Western culture about Asiatic peoples.

  • 1890s: England commands the largest worldwide empire, spanning the globe, of which India is one of the largest and most important components. However, despite Britain's attempts to keep control over the vast subcontinent, army mutinies and the growing educated class of Indians create more and more opposition to British rule.

    Today: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, formerly the Indian Empire of Great Britain, are each independent, self-governing nations. Strong influences of British rule remain, including forms of government and the adoption of English as an official national language.

This driving philosophy of moral responsibility served to rationalize the economic exploitations of other peoples and their lands by the British Empire and its subsequent amassing of wealth and power. It was nevertheless, during Kipling's time, largely embraced and unquestioned by the worldwide British population, and Kipling, being no exception, reflected this philosophy of cultural superiority and patriotism in much of his writing.

The acquisition of knowledge of the people that they governed, and the dissemination of this knowledge, was key to the formulation of the ingrained Western notion of superiority and their belief in the inferiority of Eastern peoples. The Western scholars who studied the customs and peoples of the East were called orientalists and their studies orientalism. While many of their works brought valuable translations of Eastern literature to the West—the most famous and influential of which is Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Arabian Nights—orientalism also had the unfortunate effect of creating the ethnic stereotypes that caused the nonwhite, colonized peoples to be generalized as weak, conniving, and immoral—and therefore very much in need of British law, rationale, and morality. Such descriptions that were brought back and perpetuated by orientalist "scholarship" have been ingrained into the Western psyche. The greatest evidence is Kipling's own derogatory descriptions found in Kim: Bengalis are cowardly, all Asiatics are superstitious, and Kim himself had the ability to "lie like an Oriental."

The Great Mutiny of 1857

Edward Said calls The Great Mutiny of 1857 "the great symbolic event by which the two sides, Indian and British, achieved their full and conscious opposition to each other," and he states that "to a contemporary reader [of Kim] 'The Mutiny' meant the single most important, well-known and violent episode of the nineteenth-century Anglo-Indian relationship." During the Mutiny, Indian soldiers who served the British government under white, British officers captured the city of Delhi. The Mutiny eventually became part of the larger Sepoy Rebellion (1857–1859) against the British government. While their efforts were eventually squelched, it was the first and one of the most violent acts of rebellion of Indians against the forced rule of Great Britain. The Indian National Congress, a party made up of Western-educated Indians whose aim was to acquire independence from Britain, was formed in 1885; so when Kim was published only fifteen years later, the political landscape of India was characterized by a tension between the Indians who wanted independence and the British who struggled to remain in control. It is of marked interest to note that Kipling largely ignores this tension between Indian and English in Kim and portrays all of his Indian characters as being pro-British—certainly not accurately reflecting the true political landscape of India at the time, which was instead characterized by growing discontent and the desire for Indian independence.

The Great Game

The Great Game referred to in Kim was the colloquial term for the British government's Survey of India, which began in 1767 and continued until India's independence in 1947. The players in the Great Game were trained surveyors who worked undercover for the British government. It was especially dangerous in the northern parts of the region, particularly Tibet, which was not under the jurisdiction of the British Empire; and thus surveyors sent out to map such forbidden areas were sent in disguise. It was this type of espionage work for which Colonel Creighton was training Kim.

The espionage work of the Great Game extended beyond mapmaking to collecting counterintelligence against the Russians immediately to the north. In particular, the British aim was to keep the independent regions of modern-day Afghanistan, Tibet, and Nepal from allying with Russia, in order to protect the security of their empire. The climax of Kim, in which Kim, the lama, and Babu Mookerjee effectively disarm and rob two Russian spies, is a direct reference to the threat that the British felt from the Russian presence.

Critical Overview

Although Kipling was one of the most popular writers of his time, his work was often met with sharply differing criticisms by the literary establishment. His work previous to Kim, which included more verse, political essays, and children's stories than longer works, was often met with contempt and scorn; indeed, his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1907 was criticized by the literary establishment, who viewed him more as a popular writer than a true artist, a writer of verse rather than a poet, and who disapproved of the often coarse nature of his political writings.

When Kim was first published in 1901, however, it was largely met with praise both from the press and the general readership; most critics agreed that it was Kipling's most polished work to date. J. H. Millar wrote in Blackwood's Magazine, December 1901, that "Mr. Kipling has decidedly 'acquired merit' by this his latest essay. There is a fascination, almost magic, in every page of the delightful volume, whose attractiveness is enhanced by... superlative excellence." William Morton Payne, writing on recent fiction in The Dial in November of that same year, called Kim "singularly enthralling" and said that "few Europeans understand the working of the Oriental mind as Mr. Kipling understands them, and far fewer have his gift of imparting the understanding to their readers." While The Bookman ran a piece calling Kim "mediocre and meaningless," it seems that they were equally enthralled by Kipling's riveting and enjoyable descriptions of life in India. The article states, "The author would be applauded for his very minute and exact knowledge of Asiatic life and Oriental superstition." While Kipling's contemporary critics discussed and argued his merit as an artist, it appears that the most praiseworthy item they agreed on in Kim was Kipling's vivid descriptions of Indian life and India's native peoples.

Throughout his career, Kipling wrote many works of fiction and nonfiction that gave strong voice to and supported the imperialist efforts of the British Empire, especially its governance over India. While the idea of imperialism was popular and well supported by the intellectual community during the first part of Kipling's life, by the 1920s—after Britain had fought a major world war and was struggling with more difficulty to maintain its enormous empire—the romance of colonization had been replaced by world-weariness, and Kipling's work suddenly came to be viewed as utterly old-fashioned, if not incorrect and vulgar.

It was not, however, until the school of thought known as postcolonial studies emerged in the 1960s that criticism of Kim was taken up again in a whole new light. Postcolonial study concerns itself with the effects and methods of subjugation and colonization on a subordinate people. In other words, postcolonial studies see imperialism from the point of view of the colonized. Most notable in postcolonial criticism of Kim is Edward Said, whose groundbreaking work Orientalism explores how Western concepts of the colonized peoples of the East created unflattering, generalizing, inaccurate stereotypes—such as the Asian as a liar, the Asian as conniving, and the Asian as superstitious and irrational, which contributed greatly to the rationalization for the imposition of Western rule. Said has edited an annotated edition of Kim, in which he writes in the introduction: "Kim is a major contribution to [the] orientalized India of the imagination, as it is also to what historians have come to call 'the invention of tradition.... Dotting Kim's fabric is a scattering of editorial asides on the immutable nature of the Oriental world . . . for example, 'Kim could lie like an Oriental.'" What Said points out is that the "exact knowledge" of Asiatic life so extolled as by Kipling's contemporaries were not accurate at all, but were myths that Kipling and his Western contemporaries not only bought into, but perpetuated.

Kim has not received only negative criticism in recent years, however. The reintroduction of Kipling's work through the growing popularity of postcolonial studies has brought about a renewed interest in the novel, especially its role in and its use of historical occurrences of British India, from interest in the Great Game of espionage between Russia and Britain to examinations of how Kipling portrayed The Great Mutiny of 1857. Today, Kim is still considered a minor classic, more for its historical interest than for its artistry.


Tamara Fernando

Fernando is an editor and writer based in Seattle, Washington. In this essay, Fernando argues that Kipling misrepresented the political environment of late-nineteenth-century India in order to promote the validity of British imperialism.

Much of Rudyard Kipling's writing, both fiction and nonfiction, focuses on India. Kipling—himself an Englishman born in Lahore, who lived and wrote during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the height of the British Empire—was known as one of the most vocal proponents of his time of British rule in India. His writing reflected the largely common belief held by Britain that the Western world had a moral obligation to provide the Eastern, nonwhite world with what they saw as their superior political and intellectual guidance. This complex of superiority was coupled with the largely held and promoted stereotypical portrayals of the Asiatic person as weak, immoral, and incapable of independent advancement. Of course, hand in hand with this sense of moral obligation to impose British government on the "dark races" of the world was the amassing of economic and global power for Britain itself, the largest empire the world had ever seen. Thus, the maintenance of the sense of moral obligation in India was a significant part of the ideology behind the economic welfare of the empire.

Kipling's nonfiction work was bluntly polemical, but a pro-imperialist message pervades his fiction as well. Even though the novel Kim, with its vibrant descriptions of the geography and cultures of India, seems to be a celebration of the subcontinent and its native peoples, it nevertheless is structured as a pro-imperialist work. Specifically, Kipling creates a very particular portrayal of the political environment of India that pointedly ignores the growing conflict between the native Indians and their British rulers. His constructed misrepresentation of the Indian political environment serves to maintain the strength and validity of the British presence in India.

One of the most telling scenes in Kim is in chapter 3, when Kim and the Tibetan lama come upon an old soldier who had fought on the British side in The Great Mutiny of 1857. The mutiny was the first and one of the most violent uprisings of Indians against their colonizers, in which Hindu and Muslim soldiers, who vastly outnumbered their British superiors, stormed and took over the city of Delhi. It is recognized historically as a starting point for the division between Anglos and Indians and as a starting point for the push for Indian independence (which would come almost one hundred years later, in 1947). Edward Said writes in his introduction to Kim: "For the Indians, the Mutiny was a nationalist uprising against British rule, which uncompromisingly re-asserted itself despite abuses, exploitation and seemingly unheeded native complaint." The British, on the other hand, saw the mutiny as an act of irrational and unwarranted aggression.

The language that Kipling uses to describe this mutiny is markedly from the British point of view, so it is significant that the account comes not from a British soldier but from an Indian:

A madness ate into all the Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil, but not past remedy if they had then held their hands. But they chose to kill the Sahibs' wives and children. Then came the Sahibs from over the sea and called them to most strict account.

The Indian soldier describes the cause of the mutiny as "madness" that made the soldiers turn against the officers. That Kipling characterizes an uprising based on resentment towards imperialist rule and the attempt to resist this rule as merely "madness" reduces the Indian nationalist cause to irrationality and, therefore, to meaninglessness. Because there is no rational reason for the uprising, the murder of officers—the most egregious act of disloyalty—is cast as "evil." And while the murder of civilians, especially women and children, is deemed universally unacceptable, that the soldier chooses to focus on this aspect of the mutiny serves to further demonize the actions of the Indians and invalidate their nationalist cause and the reality of their discontent.

Furthermore, the Indian soldier frames the British in a pointedly paternalistic light in describing the British retaliation against the Indian mutineers: The Sahibs "called them to most strict account" for their actions. This particular choice of phrasing casts the governing British in a parental role; the British counterattack and squelching of the insurgency—and all of the brutality likely thereafter—is cast as a just punishment that brings the unruly back to their rightful order. And that rightful order, of course, is to remain the governed, rather than the governing. Through the language he gives the soldier, Kipling frames the mutiny not as a group's legitimate attempt for independence and nationalization, but as an unjustified, irrational, and isolated act of brutality, thus not only ignoring but invalidating the existence of legitimate conflict.

While the mutiny is largely regarded by historians as the turning point in Anglo-Indian relations and the true first attempt by Indians at retaliating against the British colonizers, the future of the independence movement in India was not characterized by violence, but was instead orchestrated politically through the growing British-educated Indian middle class. The regime of Britain in India was not one of intellectual oppression—indeed, the British saw it as part of the white man's moral obligation to educate the Oriental in ways of Western morality and rationality, and so Indians were not denied, but encouraged to obtain, a British education. Nevertheless, many British did not regard the Indian, even a British-educated Indian, to ever be able to govern himself. Blair B. Kling writes in the Norton critical edition of Kim: "To the British in India the Bengalis might be English educated, but they were still racially inferior and did not have the moral fiber, manliness, or common sense to warrant more than subordinate administrative appointments." This wide-reaching British sentiment towards the educated Bengali class is specifically reflected in Kipling's characterization of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling's Great Game (1999) is a historical analysis written by Peter Hopkirk. Hopkirk explores the real history of the Great Game, which was Britain's quest to map the entire Indian subcontinent in an effort to control the region as well as to keep it out of the hands of the Russians. His specific focus is on the real people upon whom Kipling based many of his characters, such as Muhbub Ali, Lurgan Sahib, and Colonel Creighton.
  • Midnight's Children, first published in 1980 and awarded the Booker Prize in 1981, is Salman Rushdie's complex, brilliant novel that uses magical realism to explore the sociological and political issues created in newly independent, postcolonial India. Rushdie, who is a Muslim Indian, is one of the most important writers from India today.
  • Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness was published one year after Kim, in 1902, and is set in colonial Africa. Conrad's writing style is markedly different from Kipling's, and Heart of Darkness remains a classic of English literature. It is a good example of writing on imperialist themes contemporary with Kim.
  • A Passage to India, a novel by English writer E. M. Forster, was first published in 1924 when India was still a part of the British Empire. The novel, although written from a distinctly British colonial point of view, explores the controversies surrounding relationships between the different races. It offers another comparable version of India through colonial eyes.
  • Orientalism, a work of criticism by the postcolonial theorist Edward Said, first published in 1978, is a seminal criticism of British imperialism and its aftermath. In particular, Said concentrates on the use of literature by Victorian Britain to promote colonization and the exploitation and oppression of other races.

The character of Mookerjee in Kim is one of the educated Bengali class to which Kling refers. Indeed, Kipling does portray Mookerjee as highly educated and extremely competent in his work as a spy in The Great Game, especially in his heroic, skilled, and dangerous success at the climax of the novel, in which Mookerjee, with the help of Kim, tricks the Russian spies out of their goods and leads them astray. He is extremely competent at his work, even described, when he is in the midst of his anthropological studies, as a "sober, learned son of experience and adversity." However, as learned as Mookerjee may be, Kipling treats him not as an equal to the British whom he emulates, but rather as a caricature. This is especially evident in the way that Kipling has rendered his English speech patterns. Mookerjee's English speech is liberally peppered with highly British expressions, such as in a conversation with Kim: "By Jove . . . why the dooce do you not issue demi-offeecial orders to some brave man to poison them . . . That is all tommy-rott."

No other character in Kipling uses such a highly concentrated smattering of idiomatic expressions. Kipling also renders Mookerjee's English in an unorthodox spelling—such as "dooce" for "deuce"—to highlight the Bengali's non-British accent. This has the effect of portraying Mookerjee's English as not "true" English, but almost as a dialect. The dialect-type spelling, together with the almost laughable, exaggerated use of British figures of speech, has the effect of making Mookerjee's speech a caricature of the English language—the opposite of authentic English language. Said writes of Kipling's cartooning of Mookerjee: "Lovable and admirable though he may be, there remains in Kipling's portrait of him the grimacing stereotype of the ontologically funny native, hopelessly trying to be like 'us.'"

This parodying of Mookerjee devalues him—and, by extension, the educated Indian class to which he belongs—and places him on a field unequal to the British, thus rendering the Indian educated class—and therefore their cause for independence—impotent.

The misrepresentation of the Indian historical and cultural experience in these two specific instances is tantamount to Kipling outright ignoring that a very real conflict of interests existed in the Anglo-Indian relationship. The very absence of conflict between the Anglo and Indian characters in Kim is in fact not limited to specific instances, but is intrinsic in the plot of the novel, the centerpiece of which is The Great Game. The Great Game was the complex espionage operation that the British government used to collect information about the northern borders of the Indian Empire and the independent regions bordering on it—such as Afghanistan, Nepal, and Tibet—chiefly to protect their northern border against the threat of the Russians.

The main action of the plot of Kim involves the participation of Mahbub Ali, Colonel Creighton, and other key characters—including, of course, Kim himself—in a dangerous game of espionage against what remains a largely vague and unnamed enemy throughout the book. It is not until chapter 12 that the enemy is finally given a concrete identification: They are Russian spies, and the climax of the novel involves Mookerjee and Kim successfully disarming and derailing the spies from their mission. Thus, the main action of the plot of the novel results in nothing less than the preservation of the British Empire.

In addition to the Indian characters working actively as supporters of the British government is the complete absence of any Indian characters who were working in opposition to the imperial presence and for independence. Kipling would have been quite aware of the very real and vocal organizational work of the educated Indian elite to challenge British rule and bring about independence. So it is of great significance that Kipling not only completely leaves out any characters representing the independence movement, but also puts the preservation of the British Empire directly in the hands of Indians. The absence of dissension, coupled with the complete devotion of the Indian characters to the British cause, works towards a representation of India that completely denies any conflict in the Anglo-Indian relationship. Kipling, by extension, therefore denies any validity to the very real independence movement. The fact that Kipling portrays the Russians as the sole threat to British sovereignty also denies that the independence movement posed a real threat to British sovereignty. The act of completely ignoring Indian national movements on Kipling's part symbolically invalidates it and renders it harmless.

Kipling's purposefully constructed misrepresentation of the political environment of India thus leaves the reader, in the end, with an image of an India not divided by conflict, but happily united under the British Empire. Even the spiritually transcendent closing scene of the novel reflects Kipling's aim in portraying an utterly unified India: The book closes with the Tibetan lama attaining Enlightenment after finally finding the Holy River of his pilgrimage—and even in the description of the lama's Enlightenment, Kipling manages to make a final, overreaching impression of an India not divided by strife, but unified in harmony:

Yea, my soul went free, and, wheeling like an eagle . . . my Soul drew near the Great Soul which is beyond all things. At that point, exalted in contemplation, I saw Hind [India] from Ceylon in the sea to the Hills, and my own Painted Rocks at Such-zen; I saw every camp and village to the least, where we have ever rested. I saw them at one time and in one place, for they were within the Soul.

Source: Tamara Fernando, Critical Essay on Kim, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

David H. Stewart

In the following essay, Stewart explores the influences of orality on Kipling and its manifestations in Kim.

Recent studies of the oral or performative element in literature provide novel methods for understanding the work of Rudyard Kipling. In this essay, I shall review Kipling's peculiar approach to the creative process, demonstrates its applications to Kim, and note some ways of modifying critical response to Kipling and perhaps other writers.

Everyone concedes Kipling's exploitation of the visual possibilities of print. Many of his poems and pages of prose foreground the typesetter's paraphernalia: dashes, leaders, apostrophes, quotation marks, exclamation marks, and uncommon capitalizations appear constantly. The word "telegraphic" is often used to describe his style. He was delighted to include his father's illustrations to enhance the visual appeal of his books. Having mastered the journalist's craft at an early age, he sensed the power and romance of highspeed presses and made print-technology serve his ends, so that critics often credit him with helping initiate the enhancement (or subversion) of literature by incorporating journalistic techniques.

But this conventional sense of Kipling's procedure cannot be reconciled with his own statements. Late in life, he described his early efforts as a writer:

I made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye. There is no line in my verse or prose which has not been mouthed till the tongue has made all smooth, and memory, after many recitals, has mechanically skipped the grosser superfluities.

Here the emphasis is clearly on the acoustic element in his work, although he acknowledges the importance of visual and other sensory elements. His is an excellent example of writing that poses problems for readers in our century because, according to Walter Ong, literary criticism ignores auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile imagination and imageries. We are "addicted" to the visual—and thereby "impoverished."

The importance of the oral-aural elements in Kipling can be demonstrated in a number of ways. He once admitted that "three generations of Methodist Preachers lie behind me—the pulpit streak will come out!" Probably the moralizing strain was foremost in his mind, but this is inseparable from the oral medium of evangelical, indeed of Christian, tradition. How this tradition affected Kipling can be witnessed in a negative and positive way by noting his childhood experiences, first in the House of Desolation, where fundamentalist piety took venomous forms, and second in the presence of his mother and his sisters, women with an uncommon "command of words" inherited directly from a Methodist environment.

Kipling spoke often of his "Daemon." "My Daemon was with me in the Jungle Books, Kim, and both Puck books, and good care I took to walk delicately, lest he should withdraw . . . When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, obey." In some sense, Kipling believed that he "heard" what to write and transmitted the message. To whom was he listening? Psychologists might say, "to his alter ego or subconscious;" but he also conversed about and read his work to his parents. Another hypothesis claims that it is small groups of orally bonded individuals who create all literature. Writers must listen and speak before they write. Until populations became too large, you simply asked an author or his acquaintances what he meant if his poem puzzled you. The coffeehouse or salon provided appropriate settings. Literary works existed within an oral network that obviated explication. When the network broke down, as it did at first between dominant critics and Wordsworth or Kipling or Faulkner, wild allegations began to fly; but the normal fabric of communication ordinarily restored itself and conversation resumed. Isolated writers such as Emily Dickinson or Kafka, who worked somewhat outside the network, remained enigmatic until critics brought them inside. In our century, local networks continue to function (for example, the Inklings at Oxford, the Black Mountain poets, the New York Review of Books coterie), but there is no general network, hence every author requires a biographer and dozens of academic explicators. This situation gives credence to the alternative hypothesis that books are made not from living language but from reading (or misreading) other books, which seems unsatisfactory when applied to Kipling, although he read widely all his life.

That Kipling chose isolation by listening to his Daemon and by using as a sounding board his parents rather than contemporary writers is confirmed in another way when he told Rider Haggard that "we are only telephone wires;" that is, we transmit messages rather than originating them. He amplified this by explaining that neither he nor Haggard actually wrote anything. "You didn't write She you know; something wrote it through you!"

Given this assumption about the genesis of his fictions, we can understand why he confessed to writing not from notes but from memory. "I took down very few notes except of names, dates, and addresses. If a thing didn't stay in my memory, I argued that it was hardly worth writing out." Moreover, we can imagine why Kipling's reading his tales aloud was such a compelling experience for the auditor. He became a rhapsode, as Plato would have it, disclosing messages to the souls of those who can hear rightly and respond beneficially. At the very end of his life, when he revised his work for the definitive Sussex and Burwash editions, the only significant change he made in the text of Kim was italicizing key words, evidently to guide the voice of his reader toward correct rhythms, accents, and intonations.

Perhaps this helps explain the violent reactions of readers to Kipling from the first. Of course, his imperial posturing and anti-intellectualism can account for the intelligentsia's repudiation of his work; but the unique vehemence of this repudiation suggests that something in Kipling triggers extraordinary responses. Working by ear as well as by eye, he breaks into our consciousness in ways that prevent our keeping the text at arm's length. Nietzsche called the ear "the organ of fear," and Kipling assaults our ears. The "voices" of Kim occupy us, so that we become bridges threatened by the marching feet of a verbal legion, glass strained to the shatter-point by the pitch of words. His books talk in ways that force us to answer, and we try to reduce the stress of invading language by talking back—by humming along or humming against.

How is it that a writer so expert with typographic conventions manages to neutralize them, to elicit continually an aural as well as a visual response? As critics recognized when Kipling's career began, his writing is like speech or music. Already in 1890, Barry Pain wrote a parody of Kipling that included the observation that

when we speak . . ., we often put a full stop before the relative clauses—add them as an afterthought . . . But when we write we only put a comma. The author of Plain Tales from the Hills saw this, and acted on the principle. He punctuated his writing as he did his speaking; and used more full stops than any man before him. Which was genius.

George Moore claimed that Kipling's language is rhetorical, "copious, rich, sonorous . . . None since the Elizabethans has written so copiously." And T. S. Eliot believed that, like Swinburne's, Kipling's work "has the sound-value of oratory, not of music. [His] is the poetry of oratory; it is music just as the words of orator or preacher are music; they persuade, not by reason, but by emphatic sound." That this is equally true of Kipling's prose seems clear from the testimony of Henry James and other critics who sought musical analogs to describe Kipling's style.

Of greater importance than these impressionistic responses is an approach through Kipling's use of colloquialism, which many critics mistook for journalism. Richard Bridgman examined the rise of colloquialism in American literature, tracing the slow and clumsy process by which authors discovered how to convey dialect and direct speech in a convincing way. He concludes that Kipling's contemporaries, Twain and James, were the first writers to succeed and that, except for James' experiments, "nothing very clear or purposeful happened to the vernacular in literature for a quarter of a century following the publication of Huckleberry Finn." Bridgman refrains from noting the parallels between Twain and the so-called "regional" writers all over Europe during this period, from Leskov in Russia to the practitioners of Heimatkunst in Germany; nor does he call attention to the similarities between Twain and Kipling as uneducated exjournalists who expanded the literary lexicon by successfully importing colloquial language. He does not ask the obvious question: Would English and American literature have diverged so significantly in the twentieth century if English writers had capitalized on Kipling's stylistic explorations as American writers did on Twain's?

Approaches to Kipling through dichotomies between journalism and "true art" or between imperialist vulgarity and compassionate humanism can be productively supplemented by examining the tension between oral and literate strategies. To be sure, others have noted what we may call the "gestic" component in Kipling's language. Even in German translation, Berthold Brecht evidently heard "vividness and epigrammatic directness of speech" in Kipling's diction, which can be called gestic. R. G. Collingwood described Kipling as the one who shocked late nineteenth century aesthetes by reviving "magical art," dead since the Middle Ages. It is an art that has strong vocal overtones which he calls "speech-gestures."

Kim invites us to hear how Kipling conveys orality through print. In chapter seven, there are two descriptions that provide entry to the book in a new way. First, Colonel Creighton explains Kim's future in school and as a government servant. "Kim pretended at first to understand perhaps one word in three of this talk. Then the Colonel, seeing his mistake, turned to fluent and picturesque Urdu, and Kim was contented." The second passage is a description of the language of schoolboys at St. Xavier's:

And every tale was told in the even, passionless voice of the native-born, mixed with quaint reflections, borrowed unconsciously from native foster-mothers, and turns of speech that showed that they had been that instant translated from the vernacular. Kim watched, listened, and approved. This was not insipid, single-word talk of drummer-boys.

Both passages remind readers that the novel is mainly "oral" (three-fourths is direct discourse) and also that it is a "translation." Kim contains four "languages," each with its own distinctive style. First there is Kipling's (or the omniscient narrator's) style, that encyclopedic, confiding, emphatic, and often elliptical language that was his trademark. We hear it, with all its commas, dashes and foreign words, in the first paragraphs of the novel and from time to time thereafter. For some readers, it obtrudes, as Thackeray's voice does. For most readers, however, it is a supple instrument with astonishing versatility that enables him to present superb descriptions, for example of the Grand Trunk Road in chapter four. It also provides him the latitude to adopt the second person singular ("Therefore, you would scarcely be interested in Kim's experiences as a St. Xavier's boy . . . ," chapter seven), the first-person plural (". . . almondcurd sweetmeats (balushai we call it) a fine-chopped Lucknow tobacco," chapter eight), the imperative mood (the Babu: "Behold him . . . Watch him, all babudom laid aside, smoking at noon . . . ," chapter 15), and the ironic voice (the Babu: "Never was so unfortunate a product of English rule in India more unhappily thrust upon aliens," chapter 13). One added trait of this "narrator's language" is the high incidence of compounds, frequently hyphenated: "fiend-embroidered draperies," "brow-puckered search," "many-times-told tale," "quick-poured French," "de-Englishised," "be-ringed," "he . . . was bad-worded in clumsy Urdu." In addition to these verbs and verbals, compounding can be found in other parts of speech; and it led one critic to speculate that this is an important source of Kipling's epic flavor and fairy-tale quality. Certainly it is Kipling's "deviant language" in Kim (whether the narrator's or some character's) that makes his idioms so emphatic and that gives the novel a kind of deep-structure that takes us back to Anglo-Saxon word-formation.

The second language of Kim is the voice of the homeland (Balait, as Kim calls it). Creighton, the Reverend Bennett and Father Victor, even the drummer boy from Liverpool speak "standard English"—more or less. That is, each speaks his own dialect of English, always signaled by the appearance of contractions: "'em" for them, "an'" for and, "ud" for would, "amazin'" for amazing. Moreover, Kipling distinguished Victor's Irish from Bennett's English.

It is this conglomerate "normative language" that gives special flavor to what might be called "native English," the third language of the novel. This is Kim's "tinny saw-cut English" ("oah yess") before he attends school. It is the English of the bazaar letter-writers, for example "Sobrao Satai Failed Entrance Allahabad University" who added P.M. (sic) to the lama's letter to Kim: "Please note boy is apple of eye, and rupees shall be sent per hoondie [cheque] three hundred per annum. For God Almighty's sake" (chapter six). This is also the Babu's English, which Kipling exhibits frequently: "the best of English with the vilest of phrases" (chapter 13). For example, in chapter 12, the Babu describes himself to Kim in English: "By Jove! I was such a fearful man. Never mind that. I go on colloquially . . ." Then he switches to Urdu, which Kipling translates into standard English. But the signal for this switch is not buried for most readers. The compulsory examination for British officers in Hindustani was called the "colloquial." Kipling provides an aural sign for the switch between languages.

It is in this third language that Kipling often devises colloquial deformations that accentuate an aural response to words. When the Babu says that something "is creaming joke" or refers to "locks, stocks and barrels," we must "sound out" the right meaning, as we do when Huck Finn describes a subject taught by the Duke as "yellocution." Kipling was especially adept with deviant verbs. Thus a scribe, writing English translated from the lama's dictation in imperfect Urdu, records: "Then Almighty God blessing your Honour's succeedings to third and fourth generation and . . . confide in your Honour's humble servant for adequate remuneration . . ." (chapter six). The most dramatic example of Kipling's foregrounding of verbs occurs in chapter three when Kim converses with Father Victor:

"They call me Kim Rishti-ke. That is Kim of the Rishti."
"What is that—'Rishti'?"
"Eye-rishti—that was the regiment—my father's."
"Irish, oh I see."
"Yes. That was how my father told me. My father, he has lived."
"Has lived where?"
"Has lived. Of course he is dead—gone out."

Incorrect present perfect "has lived" is exactly right in place of a past tense or the verb "died" for conveying the un-Western blur of life with death. It is this "translated" Urdu and Hindi (for example, the boys' talk at St. Xavier's) that comprises perhaps ten percent of the novel.

Finally there is Kim's fourth language in which over half of the book is written. It is "actual" Urdu, often spoken with an accent. Kipling performs an impressive feat here by making English sound (and look) non-English. He does it by leaving remnants of the original vernacular, single vocables, sometimes translated in parentheses but always italicized as if inviting us to sound them aloud, however senseless and alien. He does it by "Germanic" capitalizations, a typographic trick which accentuates nominals. He does it by studding the language with borrowed, sometimes inflected words (usually mispronounced) from English, for example, terain (for "train"—"Quick: she comes!"), Berittish (for "British"), tikkut (for "ticket"), takkus (for "taxes"), Ker-lis-ti-an (for "Christian"), and a number of corrupted proper names. He does it by punning—in both English and Urdu and once in Pushtu. He does it with archaic and Biblical constructions: "We be craftsmen," "the gates of his mouth were loosened," "if so be thou art woman-born," "whoso bathes in it washes away all taint and speckle of sin," "thou wast born to be a breaker of hearts." Finally, he does it with a variety of malformations. In chapter seven, Kim leaps from a cab to greet the lama. The driver exclaims, "What is to pay me for this coming and recoming?" A moment later the lama explains his own sudden appearance: "perceiving myself alone in this great and terrible world, I bethought me of the te-rain to Benares." "Recoming" and "bethought" are little surprises in Kipling's rhetorical armory that make his language vitally oral.

In addition to these four distinct languages of Kim, there are several other features of the text that enhance its aural appeal. The poetic epigraphs for each chapter serve as a musical paradox. Kipling's habit of radical excision and compression of his manuscripts (Kim "as it finally appeared was about one-tenth of what the first lavish specification called for") has the paradoxical effect of accelerating the reader's vocalization by forcing him to fill in the gaps. Kipling's prodigal descriptions seem all the more copious because they are rare. They are show pieces set in a tale that advances almost exclusively by laconic dialog. More importantly, Kipling's visual imagery is usually random and non-cumulative. Except for such obvious links as between Kim and a colt or horse and the recurrent allusions to the Wheel, River and Road as metaphors of life, Kipling's images rise momentarily to the surface and then vanish. By no means does this minimize Kipling's appeal to the eye (or indeed the other senses). His repeated use of horizontal lighting to intensify physical descriptions gives Kim its visual brilliance. But Kipling never organizes and unfolds his texts the way Joyce, for example, does. As Hugh Kenner has observed, Joyce depends on "technological space;" that is, on the printed page exclusively, on "the antithesis between the personal matrix of human speech and the unyielding formations of the book as book." Ulysses strives for a kind of simultaneity in which incremental repetitions and recurrences call attention to themselves. We must refer constantly to the text to see them. Kim inhabits the aural recesses of memory, creates echoes in addition to visions.

Still more important in Kim is the constant "translation" from the vernacular, which creates an unusual aural medium. For example, characters "speaking" Urdu at times use an "elevated vocabulary that would be inappropriate in plain English. Kim tells Colonel Creighton, "it is inexpedient to write the names of strangers." The Jat farmer says of his sick son, "he esteemed the salt lozenges." Later when Kim scolds him for meddling, he says, "I am rebuked." Kim describes the ash in the farmer's pipe as "auspicious." Such diction is incompatible with these characters' vocabularies in English, but here in "translation" it seems normal, therefore doubly suggestive.

A second example: the novel is full of oral formulas ("let the hand of Friendship turn aside the Whip of Calamity;" "I am thy sacrifice") that are unknown in English yet familiar because they conform to the structure of maxims. A speaker of Urdu can actually translate some of them back into the original, so that he may read "I am thy sacrifice" but hear "Main tum pe qurban jaoon," a Moslem oath of fidelity. An English reader hears, instead, echoes from an archaic, perhaps Biblical, past that authenticates such statements. Curses ("Room for the Queen of Delhi and her prime minister the gray monkey climbing up his own sword!"), oaths ("I am thy cow!"), and proverbs ("For the sick cow a crow; for the sick man a Brahmin") abound in Kim. The structure is unmistakable although the words are strange, so that meaning comes as emphatically through rhythm and intonation as through diction. The continual appearance of conventionalized and formulaic locutions makes Kim rhetorical, dialogic. Its compressed style, confiding narrator, and loquacious characters everywhere reinforce an apothegmatic quality that transforms the book into a sustained enthymeme which, as students of rhetoric know, forces auditors to participate in and contribute to verbal transactions.

A final striking characteristic of Kim is the appeal to our ears through frequent use of exclamations and the imperative mood that they create. Hear and obey! Let all listen to the Jâtakas! The search is sure! Hear the most excellent Law! It is found! Be Quiett! These are cries that leap above the "surface noise" of Indian life and Kipling's high volume prose. The mood is so strong that it deflects the narrator's voice from its normal indicative mood. For example, in chapter five, there is a description of the Maverick regiment's setting up camp for the night, pitching tents, unpacking equipment, "and behold the mango-tope turned into an orderly town as they [Kim and the lama] watched!" In chapter 15, after summarizing Hurree Babu's hoodwinking the foreign agents, the narrator's voice suddenly rises: "Behold him, too fine-drawn to sweat, too pressed to vaunt the drugs in his brass-bound box, ascending Shamelegh slope, a just man made perfect." The epigraph of chapter one and the second sentence of the novel ("Who hold Zam Zammah, that 'fire-breathing dragon,' hold the Punjab . . .") are emphatic generalizations that sound like a Commandment.

If it is true that Kipling managed his typographical medium in a way that recreates the illusion of hearing rather than reading, then perhaps we can explain Kim's "magical" appeal to readers and also its peculiar isolation as a modern classic. It speaks to us from an oral-aural world not only of nineteenth century Anglo-India but of childhood. It seems to short-circuit the alphabetical print medium and operate in terms of the seven features of oral cultures that Walter Ong has listed:

(1) stereotyped or formulaic expression, (2) standardization of themes, (3) epithetic identification for "disbambiguation" of classes or of individuals, (4) generation of "heavy" or ceremonial characters, (5) formulary, ceremonial appropriation of history, (6) cultivation of praise and vituperation, (7) copiousness.

Illustrations from Kim for each of these come to mind at once and suggest the profoundly conservative tendency of the novel. Formulaic language, cliches, incantatory and exclamatory expressions withdraw us from the abstract, objective world of print, according to Ong, and reintroduce us to a world of matter, potency, indistinctness and subjectivity. This occurs because voice "signals the present use of power," sound being "more real or existential than other sense objects, despite the fact that it is more evanescent."

Like Twain and other American vernacular writers, Kipling transcribed English that was under the stress of an alien environment, which wrenched it with new words and accents, as well as novel concepts. Anglo-Indian English was as different as American English from the language of the homeland. Kipling's typographical medium captured the sense of adventure and expansiveness that rapid language modification conveys as it assists us in the struggle to assimilate new experience. His lexical and syntactic innovations explain in part why Kim is a valuable book for people learning to read.

To the triumph of print technology, Kipling reacted one way, Joyce another. Both of them listened diachronically to language and tried to transmit the word they heard. But Kipling's creed said, "drift, wait, obey," which meant that he affirmed traditional wisdom. Joyce followed a more romantic and modern path, preferring what Ong calls the "irenic" stance and avoiding the "free dialogic struggle with an audience," which was the older, perhaps more venerable, way to speak.

Source: David H. Stewart, "Orality in Kipling's Kim," in Critical Essays on Rudyard Kipling, edited by Harold Orel, G. K. Hall, 1989, pp. 114–24.

Norman Page

In the following essay excerpt, Page outlines Kim and its place in Kipling's oeuvre, and comments on Kipling's particular gifts as a short-story writer.

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Gilbert, Susan M., and Sandra Gubar, "The War of the Words," in No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century, Vol. 1, Yale University Press, 1989.

Maurice, Arthur Bartlett, "Rudyard Kipling's Kim," in Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, edited by Zohreh T. Sullivan, W. W. Norton, 2002; originally published in Bookman, October 1901.

McClure, John, "Kipling's Richest Dream," in Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, edited by Zohreh T. Sullivan, W. W. Norton, 2002; originally published in Kipling and Conrad: the Colonial Fiction, Harvard University Press, 1981.

Millar, J. H., "A 'New Kipling,'" in Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, edited by Zohreh T. Sullivan, W. W. Norton, 2002; originally published in Blackwood's Magazine, December 1901.

Payne, William Morton, "Mr. Kipling's Enthralling New Novel," in Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, edited by Zohreh T. Sullivan, W. W. Norton, 2002; originally published in Dial, November 16, 1901.

Said, Edward, Orientalism, Vintage, 1979.

Further Reading

Cain, Peter, and Tony Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688–2000, 2d ed., Longman, 2001.

When this comprehensive history of the British Empire was first published, it was received with critical acclaim. It has since been updated to relate imperialism to modern-day international politics.

Gilmour, David, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Kipling's legacy has endured a long history of vilification, but this biography offers a fresh, early-twenty-first-century perspective on his life and ideologies.

Mallett, Phillip, Rudyard Kipling: A Literary Life, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Another very recent biography on Rudyard Kipling, this work concentrates especially on Kipling's writing life and family life.

Wilson, Angus, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work, House of Stratus, 2002.

An older biography of Kipling first published in 1977, Wilson's work on Kipling concentrates on his personal life and its relationship to his work.


views updated May 21 2018


by Rudyard Kipling


A novel set In India in the late 1880s; first published in London in 1901.


Kim, a young white orphan who has been raised as an Indian street urchin, becomes both a spy for the British Secret Service and the disciple of a Tibetan lama holy man).

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was born in Bombay, India, where his father, John Lockwood Kipling, was a professor of Indian art and architecture. After being educated in England, Kipling returned to India in 1882, where he worked for the next seven years as a reporter. During this time his short stories about life in British-ruled India (published in 1888 as Plain Tales from the Hills) won him a literary reputation there, and when Kipling came back to Britain in 1889 he was rapidly accepted on the London literary scene as something of a young genius. By the following year he had published a novel, The Light That Failed (1890), along with further collections of short stories and several books of poetry that focused on the British colonial experience in India. Forever linking Kipling’s name with the British Empire, his poems (e.g., “Gunga Din,” 1882) and stories (e.g., “The Man Who Would Be King,” 1888) are highly original in their often sympathetic portrayals of both Indians and the common British soldiers serving in India. During the 1890s, Kipling’s series of children’s stories featuring Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves, was published as the two Jungle Books (1894 and 1895). Along with the Just So Stones (1902), also for children, they remain among his most widely read works today. Begun in the early 1890s, Kim was completed in 1900. At once a young reader’s adventure story and a serious adult novel, it not only describes the meeting of cultures under British rule in India, but also dramatizes India’s strategic importance within the larger British Empire.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The British in India

Britain’s presence in India began in the seventeenth century, when the English East India Company established a handful of coastal trading forts (called “factories”) at sites from Surat in the west (1619) to Calcutta in the east (1690). Only in the middle of the eighteenth century, however, with the breakup of India’s Mughal Empire into warring states, did British influence begin to extend inland from the coast. In 1757 East India Company forces under Robert Clive won a major victory north of Calcutta at Plassey; they defeated the Bengali ruler Siraj-ud-Daula, who had temporarily captured the factory in Calcutta. Another military victory followed in 1764, over the deteriorating Mughal armies further inland at Buxar. The British victories at Plassey and Buxar—after which the Company controlled the rich province of Bengal directly— marked a turning point for British power in India, in that the company’s military strength began to transform Britain’s economic influence into political control. Over the next half century, the Company extended its dominance into southern India by defeating Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, and into central India by defeating the Maratha Confederacy in 1818. Finally, in 1849 the Company annexed the region of northwestern India known as the Punjab. Ruling either directly or through client kings, the British East India Company now controlled all of India from its headquarters in Bengal.

In 1857, however, the situation changed dramatically when a violent revolt broke out in northern India against the Raj, as British rule had come to be known (from “rajah,” the Sanskrit word for “king”). The unrest originated among Indian soldiers, called “sepoys,” who served under British officers in the British Indian Army. Reflecting India’s religious makeup, many of the soldiers were either Hindus or Muslims, and the army had offended both by ordering them to handle cartridges greased with cows’ fat (unclean to Hindus) and pork fat (unclean to Muslims). The soldiers’ insurrection triggered widespread unrest among the civilian population of northern and central India, where decades of British political domination, economic exploitation, and cultural Westernization had created deep resentment among many Indians. Both the revolt and the British suppression of it in the following year were violent and bloody, with each side committing brutal atrocities against soldiers and against civilian men, women, and children.

In the novel, which is set approximately three decades after the unrest, Kim meets an old Indian soldier who participated in the conflict on the side of the British. For remaining loyal to the “sahibs,” as Indians referred to the whites (the word was originally Arabic and means “master”), the old soldier was given good land in his village and is “still a person of consequence” often visited by British officials who pass near the village (Kipling, Kim, p. 94). As scholar and critic Edward Said points out in his introduction to a recent edition of the novel, Kipling’s novel offers only one side of the story, through the old soldier, for his loyalty hardly represents general Indian opinion. Indeed, the old soldier would have been viewed as a traitor by at least a substantial proportion of the Indian population.

Significant changes in British policy followed the unrest of 1857-58. The British East India Company was shut down, and the colonial administration and army, formerly under the Company’s private control, were turned over to the British government, which appointed a governor general to command both. Massive public works programs begun under the Company were continued and new ones undertaken: irrigation systems, telegraphs, roads, railroads, and British-run schools and universities created a modern infrastructure that in large part survives today. Railroads and the famous highway called the Grand Trunk Road, which was built under the Company’s rule, figure prominently in the novel. Founding a number of universities in major cities, the government deliberately fostered Western education for Indians in the interest of breaking down India’s traditional caste system and encouraging greater participation by Indians in colonial administration. As a result, by the time of the novel a middle class of Indian civil servants and other professionals had begun to emerge. In the novel this newly Westernized segment of Indian society is represented by the character Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, known as the Babu, a Westernized Hindu Bengali with an M.A. degree from the first such institution, British-run Calcutta University, which was founded in 1857.


  • Followers of India’s oldest major religion, Hindus today make up about 85 percent of India’s population. Hindus worship a complex array of gods and goddesses and have traditionally been segregated into castes social classes originally defined by occupation. Much of the resentment against British rule was inspired by British attempts to reform or abolish the caste system, which the British viewed as backward, Hindus are represented in the novel by Such characters as the old soldier and the widow of Saharunpore (who befriends Kim and the lama).
  • Islam arrived in India from the north with the Mughal conquerors of the sixteenth century and remained strongest in India’s north, especially in the Punjab and Bengal (the two regions that split from India after independence from Britain in 1947 to form lim dominated Pakistan).in general the British tended to favor Muslims, whom they viewed as warlike and aristocratic, over Hindus Muslim characters in the novel include the colorful Afghan horse trader and spy Mahbum Ali, who drafts Kim into the British Secret Service.
  • While Buddhism originated in India around the sixth century &.C.E. (when its founder, the Buddha or Enlightened One, is thought to have lived)and shares many of its precepts with Hinduism, it failed to displace Hinduism in India Instead east ward and became predominant in many parts of East and Southeast Asia. Buddhism is lrepresented in the novel by the wise Tibetan lama (or holy man)who befriends Kim, and who some critics have suggested is the novel true hero.
  • Christianity arrived in India with European explorers in the fifteenth century, and Christian missionaries comprised an important element of British colonialism The novel features two Christian priests, one Anglican and one Catholic, whose worldly behavior contrasts sharply with the lama’s simple spirituality.
  • Other religions mentioned in the novel include Sikhism and Jainism. Although both derived from a blend of Hindu with Muslim or Buddhist beliefs, they are separate faiths.

The Great Game

Since 1876 Queen Victoria had been styled “Empress of India” in addition to her other royal titles; thereafter she appointed a Viceroy of India (her personal representative) who replaced the governor general as commander of the colonial administration and the Indian Army. The Queen’s imperial title reflected India’s preeminent role among the vast territories Britain now controlled. In 1897, when it held an extended and extravagant public celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (she had come to the throne in 1837), Britain ruled vast chunks of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the islands of the Pacific—about a quarter of the world’s land mass and population. Because of its lucrative trade opportunities and strategic value as a gateway to the rest of Asia, India was considered “the jewel in the crown” of this worldwide empire.

Protecting this “jewel” had worried the British as far back as the Napoleonic Wars that England and her allies fought, and finally won, against France from 1803 to 1815. At that time it was feared that Napoleon might invade Egypt, another British-controlled territory, and defeat British forces there, thus opening the way for a move against British India. This threat came to nothing, but after the defeat of Napoleon’s France, a further menace to India was perceived in the expansionist Russia of Czar Alexander I and his successors, who in fact began a campaign of conquest and diplomacy that brought Russian armies steadily closer to the Indian border. By the middle of the century, agents and officers of each government were at work trying to advance their nation’s cause by winning over the khans and emirs of Central Asia, north of India, where the contest was being played out. It was one such officer, a British captain named Arthur Conolly, who first called this struggle the “Great Game”—several years before a fatal miscalculation on his part led to his execution by a hostile emir in the Central Asian town of Bokhara in 1842.

That same year a British military expedition was driven out of Afghanistan in southern Central Asia, a defeat that concluded the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). A Second Anglo-Afghan War followed from 1878 to 1880, in which the British were again frustrated in their attempts to control the remote, mountainous, and landlocked region. In both wars Russia and Britain supported rival claimants to power in Afghanistan, which the British hoped to establish as a buffer zone to protect India from Russian encroachment.


In the first half of the novel Kim and the lama travel together across northern India, from the Punjabi city of lahore (now in Pakistan) to Lucknow and Benares near Bengal, a journey of about 1,000 miles. They travel by train and by foot on the Grand Trunk Road A 1,500-mile-long highway, the road is India’s major was constructed by the (East India Company to facilitate military and commercial transportation (parts had been built by sixteenth-century rulers for the same purposes). Spanning northern India, the Grand Trunk Road rum northwest from Calcutta through Benares, Delhi, and Lahore to the Punjab-Afghan border.

While Arthur Conolly originated the phrase the “Great Game,” it came into common use only decades later with the publication and success of Kim. Kipling uses it repeatedly in the novel, for it is as a player in the Great Game that Kim is trained and deployed by the novel’s spymasters. These include the Afghan horse trader Mahbub Ali and the Babu, both loyal to the British, and both of whom ultimately work for the enigmatic Colonel Creighton. Creighton, a British officer, poses as an ethnological researcher, his academic inquiries into Indian folkways serving as a perfect cover for his true job as head of the British Secret Service in India. In the real world, the British did engage in espionage and counterespionage throughout the century, but there was no single “Secret Service” as such in India: the actual British spy system in India and Central Asia was less centralized than that depicted in the novel.

By the 1880s three separate organizations were working to further British strategic interests in India. In 1879 the Indian Army had established an Intelligence Department under Major General Sir Charles MacGregor, which at first consisted of only five officers plus native clerks. MacGregor himself put together a confidential 1883 handbook, The Defense of India, providing a detailed analysis of India’s vulnerability to Russian attack from the north. In addition, the colonial government’s Political Department employed its officers in intelligence gathering along the mountainous frontiers, where they did their best to monitor Russian troop movements. Finally, topographical intelligence was the province of a government organization called the Survey of India, whose Colonel T. G. Montgomerie, journalist and author Peter Hopkirk suggests, was the model for the novel’s Colonel Creighton.

In the 1860s the Viceroy of India had forbidden British officers to travel north of India’s borders because of the high probability that they would be captured and executed (as Arthur Conolly and others had been). Therefore, Mont-gomerie, then a young captain working for the Survey of India, came up with the idea of sending specially trained native inhabitants, who would be better able to escape detection, north of the border to conduct undercover surveying of the vital mountain passes and other strategic points. Known as “pundits” (a Hindi word meaning “learned man”), Montgomerie’s operatives obtained a wealth of valuable information this way from the 1860s into the 1880s. Hopkirk concludes that Kipling, with a reporter’s deep knowledge of British India, modeled the novel’s Mahbub Ali and the Babu on Montgomerie’s pundits, right down to similar code names (Mahbub Ali and the Babu are designated C25 and R23, respectively).

In one particularly effective technique, Mont-gomerie had the pundits disguise themselves as Buddhist pilgrims and carry specially modified versions of pilgrims’ gear. For example, Mont-gomerie trained them to measure the distances they covered by taking uniform steps, counting the steps, then noting every hundredth step by moving a bead on a rosary, the string of 108 beads that devout Buddhists carried. By removing eight beads, Montgomerie made it easy to calculate that one rosary’s worth of walking equaled 10,000 steps. The “pilgrim” recorded each day’s distance on a paper cylinder concealed in the Buddhist prayer wheel that he spun as he walked. In the novel Kim is trained to collect topographical intelligence in precisely this way.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel opens in the Punjabi city of Lahore, as 13-year-old Kim plays with other boys outside the Lahore Museum, known to Indians (and to Kim) as the Wonder House. Kim is the orphaned son of a British nursemaid and an Irish sergeant in the Indian Army. His real name is Kimball O’Hara, but Indians who know him call him Little Friend of all the World. Kim’s father, who left the army and “fell to drink and loafing,” lived with an opium-smoking “half-caste woman” (a woman of mixed European and Asian descent) before his death several years earlier, and she now looks after the boy (Kim, p. 49). But Kim has grown up largely on his own, acquiring an intimate knowledge of the streets of Lahore, playing with young Indian boys and evading the charitable workers, missionaries, and other representatives of the British establishment who might seek to curtail his cherished freedom. His only connection to the past is the leather pouch that hangs around his neck, into which the woman has sewn the few official papers that constitute Kim’s inheritance from his father.

Suddenly Kim and some other boys are approached by “such a man as Kim, who thought he knew all castes, had never seen,” a tall strangely dressed man with wrinkled yellow skin and a holy man’s rosary (Kim, p. 52). The stranger, a Buddhist lama, or holy man, says he is from Tibet and asks about the museum. He has come to India on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy places there, and to Lahore because he has heard about the sacred objects in its museum. Kim, his curiosity aroused, escorts the lama to the museum’s curator, a kindly white-bearded Englishman who possesses a wide knowledge of Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Listening at the door while the two men talk in the curator’s office, Kim overhears the lama tell the curator that the real reason for his pilgrimage is to seek the legendary River of Healing, which formed at the place where an arrow shot by the Buddha fell to the ground. As the lama leaves the museum to continue the search for the mythical river—which, he says, “washes away all taint and speckle of sin”—he tells Kim that his quest has been jeopardized by the death from fever of his chela, or disciple (Kim, p. 58). The chela was a boy who traveled with the lama and begged for him, and since his chela’s death, the lama has been lonely and hungry. Always eager for fresh sights and sounds, Kim decides that he will be the lama’s new chela. In making this decision, Kim also conceives a quest of his own, based on some dimly remembered words of his father, who had once said that Kim’s destiny would lie with a group of men whose god was a red bull in a green field (the emblems on his father’s regimental flag).

The lama and Kim set out for Benares, a city of many temples, in which the lama will consult another holy man. But before beginning the journey, the lama and Kim spend the night with Kim’s friend Mahbub Ali. Mahbub Ali is a large man with a red beard, an Afghan horse trader who divides his time between Lahore and his homeland, “that mysterious land beyond the [mountain] Passes of the North,” (Kim, p. 66). He often employs Kim to watch certain men and report on their movements, although Kim does not yet know Mahbub Ali’s status as a spy for the British. Mahbub Ali has just returned with valuable intelligence: five kings north of India’s borders have allied with Russia. He needs to communicate this information to the British garrison in Umballa, a city that is on the way to Benares. Since he is being watched by agents of the five kings, he asks the boy to deliver a small package to a bungalow there. He tells Kim that the matter concerns a horse, and that Kim is to find a certain British officer at the bungalow, give him the package, and say that “the pedigree of the white stallion is fully established” (Kim, p. 68). Kim agrees “with a giggle, his eyes aflame” (Kim, p. 68). Not for a moment does he believe the story about the horse, instead imagining his mission to involve romantic intrigue of some sort.

After journeying by train with the lama from Lahore to Umballa, Kim finds the bungalow and delivers both the package and the message. He then conceals himself near the bungalow and eavesdrops on Colonel Creighton, the British officer to whom he has delivered the message. As Creighton discusses the situation with another officer—whom Kim discovers to be the British Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army—Kim learns that his message has triggered the movement north of some 8,000 British troops to punish the five kings. For Kim, this is much more exciting than romantic intrigue. “It is big news,” he tells himself excitedly (Kim, p. 86). The next day, when Kim and the lama continue their journey, they spend the night in a village where they meet a Hindu priest and an old soldier who served with the British in the Great Mutiny of 1857.

The following morning, the old soldier accompanies them to the Grand Trunk Road, the highway that will take them to Benares. Along the way they befriend the widow of a wealthy rajah (princeling) from Sarunhapore in the Himalayan foothills. The widow is on a religious pilgrimage and, charmed by Kim’s lively wit and the lama’s modesty and wisdom, she invites them to travel with her. That evening Kim sees several British soldiers marching with flags that depict a red bull on a green field—the sign that he remembers his father describing, and that he believes will be associated with his destiny. A long column of British troops marches into sight behind the flags and begins pitching tents nearby. Later that evening Kim sneaks away from the widow’s camp and creeps into the soldiers’ encampment, but he is apprehended by the regiment’s Anglican chaplain, Reverend Bennett. Believing the boy to be a thief, Bennett summons his Roman Catholic colleague, Father Victor, and the two search Kim and find the papers that the “half-caste” woman had sewn into the leather pouch Kim carries around his neck. The two priests are amazed to discover that the boy they take for a little Indian beggar speaks English, even if haltingly, and is in reality the son of a former sergeant in their own regiment.

Meeting with Kim and the two priests, the lama is heartbroken to learn that Kim has deceived him, and that his chela is in fact “a Sahib and the son of a Sahib” who can no longer accompany the lama on his quest for the River of Healing (Kim, p. 139). He blames himself, how ever, explaining that his attachment to Kim goes against the precepts of Buddhism, which hold that all passions (including affection) are obstacles to spiritual enlightenment. When it appears that Kim will have to go to a military orphanage and become a soldier, and that the only alternative is an expensive British school in Lucknow, the lama suggests that he himself pay Kim’s tuition fees at the school. The priests doubt that the lama can do so, however. The lama departs and Kim—desperate to escape from the sahibs and rejoin the lama on the road—sends a letter to Mahbub Ali pleading for the horse trader to come to his rescue. Responding quickly, Mahbub Ali arrives a few days later and takes Kim to meet with Colonel Creighton. Identifying Kim as the boy who delivered the earlier message, Mahbub Ali explains the situation, stressing (in the language of horse trading) that Kim is a “colt” who “has no equal” (Kim, p. 156). Fluent in many of India’s various languages, resourceful, adept at disguise, Kirn is perfect for the Great Game and should not be wasted as a soldier, the Afghan tells Creighton. Creighton agrees, and when the lama in fact sends the tuition money (presumably from his monastery’s treasury, though the novel does not say so), Creighton escorts Kim by train to Lucknow. Creighton tells Kim that at the school he will learn surveying skills, hinting that Kim will eventually be called on to assist him in the Survey of India, perhaps in disguise.

Creighton and Mahbub Ali carefully monitor Kim’s progress at the school, which is called St. Xavier’s. Although Kim likes the school and learns how to behave like a young sahib, when he hears that he is expected to spend the long summer holiday at an army barrack-school in a remote hill station, he rebels. Darkening his skin with dye, he disguises himself as a low-caste Hindu boy and goes “back to the Road again,” promising Mahbub Ali by letter that he would be back at school for the start of term and asking Mahbub Ali to defend him to Creighton (Kim, p. 177).

Later in the holiday, however, Kim meets up with Mahbub Ali and, on Creighton’s instructions, travels to Simla in the Himalayan foothills, summer capital of the colonial government. There, in some of the novel’s most colorful scenes, Kim is trained in the arts of espionage by an eccentric and mysterious Briton named Lurgan, with whom he lives until it is time to return to school in Lucknow. There, too, he meets Lurgan’s friend Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, a British-educated Bengali known as the Babu, a master of disguise who also works for Creighton and who further instructs Kim in spy techniques. Kim returns to Lurgan’s house in Simla for subsequent Christmas and summer holidays and eventually tries out his skills in the field. He helps Mahbub Ali thwart a Briton who is illegally smuggling arms north of the border and accompanies the horse trader to the remote city of Bikanir, which Kim maps using the secret surveying techniques he has learned.

After the operation in Bikanir, Mahbub Ali finally persuades Creighton to take the boy out of school and bring him into the Great Game before his abilities are blunted. No longer the dirty 13-year-old ragamuffin who arrived at St. Xavier’s, Kim is now a tall, confident, and handsome young sahib of 16. He has kept in touch with the lama, who visited Kim regularly at school while continuing his quest for the River of Healing. Now Creighton gives Kim six months to travel with the lama before beginning his work in the Great Game, but before the six months are up, Kim stumbles into the novel’s last two Great Game adventures.

First, during a train journey, Kim rescues another agent who is being stalked by assassins. Then, in his last adventure, Kim and the lama go north to Sarunhapore, where they stay with their friend, the widow whom they had met on the road years earlier. There they happen upon the Babu, also a guest of the widow, but now in disguise as a doctor. He tells Kim that two men, one French and one Russian, have crossed through the mountain passes from the north pretending to be on a hunting expedition while actually surveying the valleys and passes that are close to the Indian border. After journeying into the mountains to help the Babu stop this hostile intelligence operation, Kim, the lama, and the Babu return to Sarunhapore. It is here, as the novel closes, that the lama finally finds enlightenment, locating his River of Healing in a modest irrigation ditch. In accordance with Buddhist doctrine, he now believes he is ready to leave the cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation that is the human lot. Instead, however, he decides to stay in the world and help others reach enlightenment as well—specifically, to help his beloved disciple, Kim.

“Little Friend of all the World”: Kim and imperialism

When first meeting Mahbub Ali, the reader leams that he is a spy for Britain and that “five confederated Kings, who had no business to confederate, had been informed by a kindly Northern Power [i.e. Russia] that there was a leakage of news from their territories into British India” (Kim, p. 69). Mahbub Ali—whose spying is the source of the leakage—thwarts the kings’ surveillance by having Kim deliver to the British the news of their alliance with Russia, after which Kim overhears Creighton conferring with the British Commander-in-Chief about how they should respond. They plan to send troops north to attack the five kings, but when Creighton asks, “Then it means war?” the Commander-in-Chief replies, “No. Punishment” (Kim, p. 85).

These two passages reflect the essentially paternal quality of Britain’s attitude toward India, the British Empire, and indeed much of the world as a whole in the late Victorian era. It was an attitude that rested on one simple, pervasive, and largely unquestioned assumption: that the British had an absolute right to rule other peoples. From such a premise comes the conclusion that the five kings—whose kingdoms lie outside of “British India”—have “no business” forming their own foreign policies, despite their positions as the heads of sovereign states. The British often used the threat of military force to impose treaty obligations on Central Asian rulers (for example, at the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880). Similarly, the distinction made by the Commander-in-Chief in his subtle correction of Creighton—not war, but punishment—implies that, as he sees it, the five kings owe obedience to Britain: punishment is for disobedient children, while war is for equal opponents.

In his introduction to the novel, Edward Said points out that the novel provides no hint of Indian dissatisfaction with British rule, dissatisfaction that certainly existed and that found a voice in such organizations as the Indian National Congress, which was founded in 1885 and became the focal point of India’s growing independence movement. In the world of Kim, however, British imperial rule is a benevolent gift that no one would ever wish to refuse. As one historian of the empire notes, it was at the time of the novel’s composition in the 1890s that Kipling, “more than anyone, gave voice to the national emotions” of imperial Britain (Morris, p. 348). Like Kim, many Britons thought of their small island nation as a Little Friend of all the World.

Sources and literary context

Colonel Creighton and his espionage network are not the only part of the novel inspired by real life. In its rich and detailed descriptions of Indian sights and sounds, Kim explores Kipling’s memories of his own boyhood in India. According to Peter Hopkirk, whose research is presented


In modern studies of Kim and Kipling, controversy has arisen over the question of whether—and If so, how—Kipling’s writings are racist Certainly the novel abounds with broad generalizations regarding “Oriental” disorganization, ineptitude, or duplicity In describing the chaos of Lahore’s train station at night, for example, Kipling writes that all hours of the twenty four are alike to Orientals, and their passenger traffic is regulated accordingly” (Kim, p 74), Similarly, we are told that “Kim could lie like an Oriental (Kim, p. 71) Some critics have argued that such stereotypes reveal racial prejudice on Kipling’s part. Others, arguing that the novel’s nonwhite characters often compare favorably to the whites, suggest that cultural stereo typing does not necessarily stem from racially based prejudgments. It has furthermore been suggested that the “brilliance of Kim Iies in its ability to represent cultural multifariousness” while at the same time illustrating the power of a “monolith,” the colonial system (Suleri, p, 119)

in his recent book Quest for Kim, many (though not all) of the novel’s other characters and settings are based on actual people and places Kipling knew. Most significantly perhaps, the white-bearded curator of the Wonder House is widely recognized to be an accurate and affectionate portrait of Kipling’s father, John Lock-wood Kipling, who held that same position at the real Lahore Museum when Kipling himself was a boy. Both of Kipling’s parents helped him as he wrote the novel, offering critical advice and suggestions; his father, an accomplished artist, produced illustrations for the novel’s first American edition.

Kipling also knew a colorful Afghan horse trader named Mahbub Ali, whose father had sided with the British during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1829-32). While the real Mahbub Ali kept his friend “Kuppeleen Sahib” up to date about events in Afghanistan when Kipling was a reporter, he does not seem to have spied for the British (Hopkirk, Quest, p. 60). Other characters such as the lama may also originally have had real-life models, though it seems certain that Kipling added his own creative touches to their fictional counterparts.

Kim is a highly original work and does not stand squarely within any single literary tradition, but it has been compared with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which also describes a young boy’s coming of age within the context of a colorful journey. The wise yet often naive lama, critics have suggested, has much in common with Huck’s companion Jim, the escaped slave with whom Huck journeys on the Mississippi.


Kim was serialized in McClure’s Magazine in the United States from December 1900 to October 1901 and in Cassell’s Magazine in Britain from January to November 1901. It appeared in book form in Britain and America in 1901. Early reviews were muted, considering Kipling’s status as a leading British author, partly because public attention at the time was preoccupied with the South African War (1899-1902). This bitter and often brutal colonial struggle pitted the British against the Afrikaners (white descendents of Dutch colonials in South Africa, formerly called Boers). Kipling himself traveled to Africa to report on the South African War for British newspapers. The conflict had sharply reduced popular enthusiasm for imperial ventures, and Kipling’s name was firmly linked with such ventures in the public mind. Popular enthusiasm also flagged with the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901; along with the war, her death seemed to mark the passing of the imperial era.

Yet critics soon recognized Kim as an artistic masterpiece and the best of Kipling’s novels. Edward Shanks, for example, praised it as celebrating “the infinite and joyous variety of India for him who has the eyes to see it and the heart to rejoice in it” (Shanks in Page, p. 152). Even more laudatory were the words of novelist Kingsley Amis, who called Kim “not only the finest story about India” but “one of the greatest novels in the language” (Amis, p. 83).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Amis, Kingsley. Rudyard Kipling and His World. New York: Scribner’s, 1975.

Bloom, Harold. Rudyard Kipling. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Carrington, Charles. Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Green, Roger Lancelyn, ed. Kipling: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1971.

Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game. New York: Kodansha, 1994.

——— Quest for Kim. London: John Murray, 1996.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. London: Penguin, 1987.

Morris, James. Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Page, Norman. A Kipling Companion. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Rutherford, Andrew. Kipling’s Mind and Art. London: Oliver & Boyd, 1964.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.


views updated Jun 08 2018


by Rudyard Kipling


A novel set in British India around 1900; published in 1901.


A spy thriller as well as a story of a spiritual quest and a coming-of-age tale, Kim captures the variety and color of Indian social and political life at the height of the British Empire.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born in Bombay, India, of British parents, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) spent the first five years of his life with his parents in India before going to England for a proper British education. At seventeen, he returned to India and from 1882 to 1889 pursued a journalistic career in the northern reaches of the country. While working for a British newspaper, Kipling also began to write short works of fiction that were well received. Eventually he departed India for the West, married an American woman, and lived out most of the rest of his life in celebrity in England. The nostalgic novel Kim was written while Kipling was recovering from a terrible bout of influenza that nearly killed him and did in fact kill his beloved seven-year-old daughter. Despite its sometimes dark ruminations upon race relations and the charge that it conveys an image of righteous British colonialism, Kim is widely considered a masterpiece of children’s literature. The novel appeared serially in McClure’s Magazine (Dec. 1900-Oct. 1901) and in Cassell’s Magazine (Jan.-Nov. 1901); it was also released in book form in 1901.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

British India

According to one prominent researcher, there were at one time 225 distinct languages, not including their attendant dialects, in India. Modern counts still put the number at some 212. An ancient crossroads of culture, the Indian subcontinent is home to many different peoples with very different ways of life. These include the Sikhs, the Rajputs, the Bengalis, the Gujaratis, the Marathas, the Brahmins, the Tamils, the Andhras, the Kannadigas, the Malayalis and the Parsis, among the most prominent groups.

There had been a strong British presence on the Indian subcontinent since the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the East India Company, a British trading conglomerate, set up its first post on India’s northwest coast. The Company was to virtually rule India, controlling trade, law and order, and education until 1859, when Queen Victoria proclaimed that India would be governed directly by the British sovereign.

What changed the Company’s fortunes in India was the series of events known today as the “Indian Mutiny” or the “First Indian War of In-dependence.” (India would not, in fact, become an independent nation until 1947.) Although the events leading up to the bloodshed were extremely complicated, one of the reasons for the uprising was the suspicion that the British were determined to do away with the most basic Indian social and religious customs and replace them with British ones.

The single event that precipitated the fighting was the arrival from Britain of a new kind of cartridge for the rifles carried by Indian soldiers in the ranks of the East India Company’s army. This cartridge demanded a different kind of greasing than the previous model, and the British discovered that a mixture of animal fats worked best. They failed, however, to take into proper account the Hindu taboo against touching any product made from cattle, and the Muslim taboo against pork. While Company officials were careful to specify to British manufacturers of the cartridgelubricants that only goat or sheep fat was to be used, once subcontractors in India itself began to produce the lubricants, the directions got less precise. A rumor spread that the British purposely used animal fats that would contaminate the Indian soldiers, and the fear of this grew rapidly. A group of eighty-five Indian soldiers at Delhi balked at greasing their rifle cartridges, and were promptly sentenced to ten years in jail for disobedience. Other Indian regiments decried what they saw as an injustice and took up arms against the British. Within days, beginning on May 10, 1857, the British colony at Delhi was butchered in its entirety, including women and children. Soon the violence spread to other parts of the country. The northern city of Lucknow, where the novel’s hero, Kim, is sent to a British school, was the scene of a particularly long-drawn-out seige.


[A]lways in the later nineteenth century an underlying assumption was that the British were a superior nation whose duty was to spread the benefits—material and moral —of trade with them and to propagate their own styles of education, law, and manners to the benighted of the earth, simultaneously making a profit for the imperial metropolis.

(Brown, pp. 103-04)

The Indian uprising was put down within a year, but it was a savage fight, with the British response matching the Indian in terms of atrocities. Sobered by the experience, Britain’s Queen Victoria quickly realized how close her empire had come to jeopardizing its significant interests in India and decided she would no longer trust the future of such important trade as spice, tea, cotton, and other natural resources to the management of the East India Company. The Company had significant ties to the British government throughout most of its tenure—for example, the Bank of England had bailed it out of financial troubles, and the Company took pains to institute British law wherever possible in India. But in the aftermath of the mutiny it was relieved of its powers and duties in India, and the government stepped in as the sole official ruler of the subcontinent.

On November 1, 1859, Queen Victoria established the office of the “Viceroy of India,” a political appointment subordinate in rank only to the monarch; the creation of this office was intended to demonstrate to the Indian people the high regard and affection of the British Crown for its Indian subjects.

Along with this legislative change came also a certain change in attitude. The events of 1857-1858 had served to increase tension—and racist inclinations—in British-Indian relations. Once, the British had mixed with the Indians around them, often taking Indian wives or mistresses and socializing with the people that they were teaching or commanding. Also the British had filled the ranks of the Company’s standing army with Indian men. The new India under the British Crown, in contrast, became much more rigidly segregationist.

The sheer rapidity and scale of the “mutiny” violence had shocked both sides into recognizing that the British presence in India, which had come to dominate the country and people over the past two centuries, resulted in an unnatural, uneasy state of affairs. It was determined by some of the British people living in India that the Indians were a treacherous, untrustworthy, and violent people, a stereotype that gained widespread acceptance in the second half of the nineteenth century. British authorities barred Indians from any real level of power in the administration of India, forbade them to operate artillery in the army until World War I, and strictly regulated their numbers in the army so that there would always be a strong majority of non-Indian soldiers in any area. The British furthermore cloistered themselves in their own communities, staffed by Indian servants who were “kept in their place” by a rigid social code. In Kim, for example, an elegant party at a high-ranking British officer’s home upon which Kim eavesdrops is attended by only British guests but staffed by Indian cooks, gardeners, and house-attendants.

The Hindu caste system

Indian society in Kipling’s day was—and still is to a certain degree—organized by the ancient “caste” system of

hierarchical, hereditary social classes. People from one caste have little to do with members of other castes; for example, it is forbidden that a person eat food prepared by or touched by a member of a lower caste. Yet caste is actually a component of Hindu society, not Indian society as such. Hinduism itself is a nebulous concept—it denotes neither a church, nor a religion, but “a body of customs and a body of ideas” (Spear, p. 41) based largely on a sense of shared community; the caste system is one of its distinguishing features. Although the date of Hinduism’s origin is unknown, scholars do know that the caste system existed in rudimentary form by 500 b.c.

At the time that Kipling was writing Kim, Indian society was still dominated by four classes, or varnas—the priests (Brahmins), warriors (Kshatriyas), merchants (Vaishyas), and the servants or cultivators (Sudras, pronounced “shoo’-druhs”). These four groups were then subdivided into an intricate system of caste differentiation. The entire social structure, which endured more or less in its original form until as recently as 150 years ago, can be baffling in its complexity. At various times there have been nearly three thousand different levels of social importance and responsibility that both determined and were determined by one’s lineage, occupation, and home. Caste was, of course, passed down through the generations, but there were castes for doctors, writers, leatherworkers, milkmen, and streetcleaners, to name just a few professions. Castes were also formed around geographical location; the Rajput people of the north were traditionally thought of as warriors, for example. A fifth group, known as the “outcasts” or “untouchables,” appeared when those outside of the four classes of society, usually members of outlying tribes or conquered peoples, decided to order themselves in the same way as the members of the original four classes. Deprived of any rights, these outcasts were universally despised and abused. The lower one’s caste, the fewer one’s rights and dignities; even Kim, whose nickname throughout the novel is “Little Friend to all the World,” shuns a group of lowercaste travelers that he notices on his journeys in northern India:

They met a troop of long-haired, strong-scented Sansis with baskets of lizards and other unclean food on their backs, their lean dogs sniffing at their heels. These people kept their own side of the road, moving at a quick, furtive jog-trot, and all other castes gave them ample room; for the Sansi is deep pollution.

(Kipling, Kim, p. 86)

The infrastructure

After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Indian subcontinent was brought into full and rapid contact with the Western world. Meanwhile, within India, the British system of railways and roads was opening the country up to itself. The Grand Trunk Road, for example, along which much of the action of Kim takes place, was begun in 1839 and would grow to 1,400 miles in length, linking the northwest frontier to the major cities of Calcutta and Delhi. Before the British arrived, India did not have many roads at all, and those that did exist had been poorly maintained. The British immediately saw that if they were to make full use of India’s riches, they were going to have to construct a road system that ensured expedient transportation of raw and manufactured materials from one area to another.

The railway system introduced by the British was even more impressive than the roads and remains a wonder to this day. By 1900, it was carrying 200 million passengers and 46 million tons of freight a year. At the turn of the twentieth century, a combined 25,000 miles of government and private-enterprise tracks crisscrossed the country and employed by far the largest number of laborers in India. These tracks linked the seaports with important inland areas of agricultural production and also forged a link with the outlying, politically significant areas of the country. Neglected by the builders of railroads were southern and central India, while the builders concentrated on the northern reaches of the country. Thanks partly to the perceived threat of Russia’s advancing upon India’s borders with Afghanistan, the British took greater interest in the northern region. The sheer ingenuity of the engineers who built the tracks that were to crisscross India defies imagination:

The relatively short run from Bombay to Surat required bridges to be built across eighteen rivers, and some foundations had to be driven 140 feet deep to withstand the torrents of floodwater. When the railway was finally pushed up to Simla, the last 60 miles of track were laid along 103 tunnels blasted through the mountainsides.

(Moorhouse, p. 164)

At the time of their initial development, the railroads were decried as a danger to Indian culture. Critics warned that the railroads would disrupt traditional ways of life and bring different cultures into conflict. As it turned out, the native Indian people took eagerly to the trains, even though the kind of socializing that rail travel necessitated did bring together different castes of people who would never have considered sharing space with one another. “It brought thousands of all castes cheek by jowl in third-class carriages. It did not of course affect the main marriage and other social restrictions, but it encouraged social contact and exchange of ideas” (Spear, pp. 283-84). The train compartment in which Kim and his traveling companion, a Tibetan holy man, ride is filled with people of varying castes, people who would have had no contact with each other outside the railway system.

The Punjab: the final frontier

At the turn of the century, India’s northern border with Afghanistan was the most interesting and lucrative part of the country, as far as the British were concerned. This rugged and mountainous region is the geographical area in which Kim is set. The educated Indians of the more southern regions, specifically the Hindus from Bengal, were, thanks in part to their excellent Western education, becoming vocal and eloquent opponents of British rule, and were as a result ignored or openly denounced by the British as ungrateful, insurrectionary, or “un-Indian.” Because of their education and fluency in English, they were shunned by other Indians who regarded them as quasi-British imperialists. Hurree, the Bengali who in the novel is a British agent, is just such a figure.

In contrast to the southern Bengalis, soldiers from the Punjab, the northwest frontier, had aided the British during the “mutiny,” and it was to them that the British now looked with approval—and apprehension. The Russians, whom Kim and his friends encounter at one point in the novel, were also very interested in the province, and were a worrisome threat to the British on two counts. Firstly, the British Crown did not like the idea of another country interfering in its richest and most strategic colony; second, any political success enjoyed by the Russians anywhere in the world at this time was bound to tilt the scales of European power. In the late nineteenth century, the British extended roads, railway lines, and irrigation canals deep into the Punjab, in the hopes of stabilizing their power there. The “Great Game” of spying and counterspying that underlies Kim thus had a very real and very high-stakes purpose: British authorities believed that the Russians were plotting an invasion of northern India.

The Indian Civil Service

The Indian Civil Service, or ICS, as it was known, drew the best middle-class British men to it through the promise of adventure, good pay, and perhaps also the idea that it was a British duty to bring British culture to the Indians. Originally an offshoot of the East India Company, under the British Crown the ICS extended British rule to every corner of India. The Company had established its own British school, Haileybury College in Hertfordshire, England, to train prospective employees in the demanding jobs that the Company required in India. Boys studied a smattering of Oriental languages, as well as more rigorous programs in literature, mathematics, law, history, and politics.

As Britain annexed more and more territory in and around India, the British needed more and more employees to administer the regions, and the numbers soon outdistanced Haileybury’s capacity to produce them. The ICS was then thrown open to students at other British universities. Between 1855 and 1859, men from Oxford and Cambridge in England provided the majority of new candidates to the service.

There were three divisions to the ICS: the Executive, the Judicial, and the most desirable and flamboyant of the three, the Indian Political Service, which dealt with external and diplomatic affairs. Attached to this division are many of the characters in Kim who ostensibly work for the department of the Indian Survey while actually collecting covert information on people opposed to British rule. For all the excitement and danger of his career as a spy, then, Kim is still a civil servant.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Young Kimball O’Hara, or Kim, as he is known throughout the novel, is the orphaned son of an Irish sergeant. Kim lives like an Indian street urchin on the streets of Lahore (a city on the northwest frontier of India, just south of Cashmere [Kashmir]). His British blood, however, gives him privilege and self-assurance, and he moves through the city as “Little Friend to all the World,” doing exactly as he pleases. His life is forever changed, however, when he meets a strange Tibetan holy man, a Buddhist lama or teacher, named Teshoo, with whom he becomes instantly fascinated. Kim vows to accompany the old man in his wanderings throughout India, and the two set out on a great quest for a mystical Indian river in which the old man hopes to rinse away his sins.

Kim’s ability to blend with the Indian natives has made him useful to the British Secret Service, for whom he has been an unknowing courier; while the boy intuits that he is transferring secret information to the British from his friend, an Arab horse-trader, he does not realize the extent to which this information is essential to British interests in the area. The “disguise” of being the follower of a holy man allows the boy to slip undetected past enemies of Britain with an incriminating piece of paper that launches a punitive military strike against a potential uprising in the northern part of the country.

Kim envisions a carefree life, traveling with his lama and dabbling occasionally in the lowlevel espionage that fills him with a sense of self-importance. But a chance encounter with his father’s former regiment causes Kim to be handed over to military chaplains in the interests of getting him a British education. Over Kim’s horrified protests, the lama concludes that the boy ought to possess the best education that can be found for him and arranges for money to be sent from his Tibetan monastery to achieve this end. News of his “capture” comes to the ears of the high-level British officials who have previously found the boy so useful, and they decide to turn him into one of their operatives. When this is made clear to the lad, Kim grudgingly enters the halls of learning.

Upon his release three years later, Kim resumes his journey with the lama, but also engages in secret spying missions involving political unrest along the northwest frontier. His own quest for self-discovery becomes entangled with the lama’s search for enlightenment and with the trade in military secrets that scuttles throughout life in the Punjab. Spiritual enlightenment and political success merge in the novel’s famously ambiguous conclusion, in which the lama, who has finally reached his spiritual goal—to leave behind his body and merge with the “Great Soul”—returns to life to help Kim live up to his own spiritual potential.

The Middle Way

Kipling’s India was a land of many different belief systems, prominently Hinduism and Islam, but—thanks primarily to the British—Christianity as well. By far the most thoroughly discussed religion in the novel, however, is Buddhism, a belief system that emerged out of Hinduism in the sixth century a.d. The “Middle Way” that Teshoo follows is the spiritual practice of Buddhism. It avoids extremism, aiming to provide a way of life for everyone, not only for priests. The Middle Way counsels moderation in views, resolves, speech, action, living, effort, recollectedness, and meditation. Buddhism declined seriously in India between the first and sixth centuries a.d., although it later gained great popularity abroad in China, Japan, southeast Asia, and Tibet. Although the reason for the Indian decline is uncertain, it may have been related to the preferences of the Indian nobles for Hinduism, which was based on the idea of social hierarchy—a concept Buddhism totally disregarded. Hinduism also did not condemn violence, which Buddhism utterly rejected.

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (which means “enlightened one”), taught that the worldly things that people desired were not real, but an illusion. Attachment to riches, to people, to food or drink, and to all other earthly things, caused human beings to be reborn over and over again into different bodies because they could not give up the world. This chain of reincarnation was expressed in the image of the “Wheel of Life.” The drawing that the lama keeps with him and works on throughout the novel is of the Wheel of Life, which plots the six states of man (ranging from gods to demons), the twelve modes of existence (for example, ignorance, sensation, birth, and death) and the three vices of ignorance, anger, and lust. Freedom from the wheel and an end to rebirth comes only with detachment from desires—at this point, one’s soul is absorbed into the Great Soul of the universe and one achieves enlightenment or nirvana. Exactly what nirvana is has always been a matter of debate. Scholars dispute whether it means simply final oblivion to the sorrows of life or whether it promises a conscious sense of eternal happiness. Teshoo’s transcendent experience, in which, after sitting in contemplation for two days and eating or drinking nothing, he crosses the threshold between life and death, between time and timelessness, suggests the latter:

[M]y soul went free, and, wheeling like an eagle, saw indeed that there was no Teshoo Lama nor any other soul. As a drop draws to water, so my Soul drew near to the Great Soul which is beyond all things. I saw all Hind [India], from Ceylon in the sea to the Hills.... I saw them at one time and in one place; for they were within the Soul. By this I knew the Soul had passed beyond the illusion of Time and Space and of Things. By this I knew that I was free.

(Kim, p. 411)

Because Buddhism taught detachment from the world, it led naturally to monasticism; Teshoo, for example, comes from a monastery in Tibet. Buddhist monasteries, however, are much different from Christian monasteries, in that people can come and go from them as seems proper to them. Teshoo can thus be a Buddhist holy person

without being confined to the space of his monastery, and Buddhist holy people were even expected to wander as he does.

Red bull on a green field

Kim’s father was a member of an Irish regiment, the Mavericks, who were on a tour of duty in India as part of the British military exercises there. The standard of this regiment is a red bull on a green background, and the image becomes confusedly entangled with a prophecy about Kim’s future. The Indian woman who became Kim’s father’s mistress after the death of his wife, and who took charge of the boy for a little while, tells him: “[S]ome day...there will come for you a great Red Bull on a green field, and the Colonel riding on his tall horse, yes, and… nine hundred devils” (Kim, p. 3). More than merely a regimental standard, the red bull on the green field also signifies the military presence of the British, whose colonies were always colored red in the green fields of India on maps of the time. But the image is also reminiscent of the Irishness of Kim and his father, of which much is made throughout the novel. Ireland, traditionally associated with the color green, was having its own nationalistic political strife with England at the time Kipling was writing Kim; there is almost certainly a pro-English significance to the military image that represents Kim’s birthright in the novel. In his introduction to Kim, Angus Wilson notes, “It is these two aspects—the wild Irish lad and his taming by working as a British spy that were emphasized by critics and readers in the first forty years after the publication of the novel” (Wilson in Kipling, pp. xiv-xv).


The idea of a novel that featured the secret machinations of the British intelligence network in India first appeared in an unpublished work of Kipling’s entitled “Mother Maturin,” which concerned the marriage of a poor Irish girl living in Lahore to an upper-class British civil servant and the successful spy ring that they create together. But the most important source for the novel is surely Kipling’s own cherished memories of India. Kim has been seen by critics as in many ways reflecting Kipling’s own child-hood, a time that he idealized throughout his life. As a child, the novelist was attended to by an Indian ayah, or nanny, and probably spoke an Indian tongue better than English. The story of a little British boy who lives as an Indian native may reflect in certain ways Kipling’s own early memories of his first years. The novel opens outside the “Wonder House”—the Lahore Museum, where the holy man goes to meet an English curator who treats him with respect and shows him the impressive collection of Indian artifacts in the museum. The two men recognize each other for lovers of art and knowledge, and through his courteous exchange with the lama, the curator emerges as one of the most honorable characters in the book. The brief sketch of the museum director was modeled after Kipling’s father, for a time the curator of the Lahore Museum. He also provided the original illustrations for Kim’s appearance in book form.


When Kim first came out, reviewers focused intently on the Irishness of Kim and his father, probably because the turn of the century marked a particularly turbulent time in Irish-English political relations. But, more lastingly, the novel has been studied in terms of its representation of Indian colonialism—the relationships and balance of power between the British ruling class and the Indians in the novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, the reviews have often condemned Kipling’s essentially pro-British attitudes. Edmund Wilson, for example, called Kipling a “jingo imperialist” (Wilson in Moorhouse, p. 175). But many critics praise Kipling’s sense of adventure, romance and humor, and see in Kim both “high literature and… perpetual entertainment.” (Bloom, p. 1). Kipling’s own opinion of the novel appears in a letter to a friend and editor that announces its completion. “I’ve done a long leisured asiatic yarn in which there are hardly any Englishmen. It has been a labour of great love and I think it is a bit more temperate and wiser than much of my stuff (Kipling in Wurgaft, p. 104).

For More Information

Bloom, Harold, ed. Rudyard Kipling: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Brown, Judith M. Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy. The Short Oxford History of the Modern World. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. London: Macmillan, 1981.

Moorhouse, Geoffrey. India Britannica. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

Spear, Percival. India: A Modern History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961.

Wurgaft, Lewis D. The Imperial Imagination: Magic and Myth in Kipling’s India. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1983.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Kim hero of Kipling's picaresque novel of that name (1901), the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, who grows up as an Indian. He becomes the chela of a Buddhist lama from Tibet as well as being (through his father's old regiment) educated as a European and later recruited into the British secret service.
Kim's game a memory-testing game in which players try to remember as many as possible of a set of objects briefly shown to them; from the game with jewels played by Kim in Kipling's novel.


views updated May 18 2018

KIM (kim) Chem. kinetic isotope method