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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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Chapter 1 Approaches to Kipling’s Comic Writing


It is understandable that critics would wish to have a formula that expresses the salient features of Kipling’s comic writing. Confronted by a large subject, embracing disparate features, they look to features of Kipling for a theory, which will bind them together.

Influenced by Edmund Wilson’s well-known essay many of those who afterwards wrote on Kipling sought to see his writing, and especially his stories involving tricks and deception, as the products of a damaged personality. Even after Wilson’s comments began to seem flawed by a dated, somewhat naive Freudianism, such readings have an afterlife. Current interests in identifying and exploring fissures in texts and examining material or impulses self-censorship have been keeping back, allow critics to fasten on what they see as discordant and to speculate on the writer’s personality. Kipling’s fallen colonisers are cultural reminders of nineteenth-century anxiety about the fluidity of sexual and racial Otherness, an anxiety that insulates itself by the possibility of excluding that which is deviant, dirty and effeminate.1

Obviously, such critical approaches involving gender theory and examinations of imperialist discourse and masculinist rhetoric may be a means to offer strong readings of several of Kipling’s stories. However, when such critical methods are applied to Kipling’s stories, involving jokes and the related topic of knowingness, we may become conscious of the restricted usefulness of these theories, since there are too many subjects in such fiction that they cannot usefully explore. By adhering rigidly to such frames of reference, we risk...

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