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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 4 ‘Private Learoyd’s Story’


It might seem that this, published in 1888, and one of the earliest and simplest of Kipling’s stories based on practical jokes, hardly requires or deserves close analysis. What can usefully be said of an anecdote about the three soldiers painting an ill-tempered dog and passing him off, in this disguise, as a gentle pet for a foolish woman? Yet, the very simplicity of the story is an advantage. In embryo, it explores preoccupations Kipling was to elaborate upon in his later treatments of the practical joke. There is a second point about ‘Private Learoyd’s Story’. The simplicity of the tale is of an artful quality. In writing this piece, Kipling displays some of the craft and mastery of implication that deepened in his later work.

The story’s epigraph is worth notice: ‘And he told a tale. – Chronicles of Gautama Buddha’1 is an unexpected, even odd preface to a seemingly trivial act of trickery. We might be tempted to take the reference to Buddha’s teachings as merely facetious: a joke based on the disparity between the great teacher’s pronouncements and the farcical anecdote which follows. Such an assumption would be incorrect. Even if we knew no more about Kipling’s attitude to Buddhism than we might infer from the figure of the Lama in Kim or from the poem ‘Buddha at Kamakura’, it would be hard to deny that he deeply respected Buddhist spirituality. The Lama’s search for the River of the Arrow and the religious meaning it embodies...

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