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Kipling the Trickster

Knowingness, Practical Jokes and the Use of Superior Knowledge in Kipling's Short Stories

John Coates

This book is an exploration of the way in which the characters in Rudyard Kipling’s short stories use superior knowledge, which often involves deception and the playing of practical jokes. There was early critical hostility to the stance adopted by Kipling’s characters, that of a superior knowledge acquired by friendship with a small male circle. This book engages with a long-standing critical tradition which treats the jokes as acts of vicarious revenge or symptoms of supposed defects in Kipling’s personality, instead setting his use of the practical joke in the wider social context of his time.

In this book Kipling’s writing is examined for what it reveals about a complex, self-conscious but powerful range of values rather than what it is supposed to disguise or conceal. Although he endorsed British colonial rule, Kipling was frank about the slackness, endemic rule-breaking and second-rate nature of British rule in India. He also criticised some of the widespread cultural, religious and moral phenomena of his time, which he thought harmful. Many of his short stories contain an implied but serious criticism of Victorian beliefs, from attitudes to death-beds, and schoolboys to Positivism.

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Introduction: Knowingness, Practical Jokes and the Use of Superior Knowledge in Kipling’s Short Stories


A useful consideration of this subject, one of the most unavoidable and intriguing in any examination of Kipling’s work, should deal with two matters. First, it is necessary to show what the existing frame of reference is in which scholars and critics have discussed the topic and how current ways of understanding Kipling’s use of superior knowledge have taken shape. Second, it is essential to define the position and emphases of the present study in order to show how its approach differs from recent and contemporary scholarship. For the latter purpose, it would be helpful to summarise the contents of the book, and to indicate its argument.

Those who have explored Kipling’s interest in and employment of superior knowledge have differed in the terminologies they have employed. Yet, in spite of changes down the years, there has been continuity in the direction, tone and attitude many critics have displayed. One of the purposes of the present study is to question these underlying, persistent assumptions and what they imply.

The present state of the question, regarding the topic of this study, results from an unfolding of concerns present in the earliest responses to Kipling as a writer. Those who reviewed his earliest productions were delighted by the new kinds of experience they offered readers, by the presentation of previously little-known Indian and army life. Yet, many critics were troubled or repelled by the tone the new author adopted when offering or commenting upon his discoveries. From the...

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