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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 3 ‘The God from the Machine’

Extract

Soldiers Three has been somewhat neglected by Kipling critics who have seen it as a collection of lightweight comic anecdotes. Some of the tales rely on practical jokes. At first sight, perhaps, the Bakhtinian category of the carnivalesque might seem to offer a field in which the behaviour of the ‘Three Musketeers’, Mulvaney, Ortheris and Learoyd might be explored. Is it possible to see them as manifestations of a popular, democratic counterculture whose laughter and boundless world of humorous forms are opposed to a formal hierarchical official attitude? Applied to what the reader actually encounters in Soldiers Three, such a frame of reference seems prescriptive and formulaic.

The problem is that modern critical views of farce were not current in the 1880s. We expect to see farce used as a vehicle of radical social comment, as in Orton’s Loot or employed to demonstrate life’s giddy absurdity as in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. We find the notion of farce to be enjoyed for its own sake alien and prefer to see it as a conscious and wide-ranging act of subversion rather than simply as a source of pleasure.

Those who might accept that Kipling gave a voice to a group who have been voiceless, providing a means by which the late Victorian common soldiers can make themselves heard, are not always at ease with what the soldiers in Kipling’s stories actually say. Giving utterance to those who have been denied speech does not always produce a comforting,...

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