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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 5 ‘Thrown Away’

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Readers of Frederic Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little (1858), that edifying, if at times hysterical account of a public schoolboy’s gradual corruption and death-bed repentance, may recall how Eric, ‘shocked beyond bound or measure’, and ‘blushing scarlet to the roots of his hair’,1 first hears the other boys using bad language. The narrator implores his imaginary youth to rebuke his school fellows:

Now, Eric, now or never! Life and death, ruin and salvation, corruption and purity, are perhaps in the balance together, and the scale of your destiny may hang on a single word of yours. Speak out, boy! Tell these fellows that unseemly words wound your conscience; tell them that they are ruinous, sinful, damnable; speak out and save yourself and the rest. [99]

Good spirits hover over Eric pointing ‘a pitying finger to the yawning abyss of shame, ruin, and despair […] being cleft under’ the boy’s ‘feet’ [99] but to no avail. By not speaking out when hearing swear words, the poor lad moves ‘little by little’ towards the eternal damnation which, eventually, he only narrowly escapes.

Perhaps it is hardly necessary to mention that Farrar was much influenced by the great school reformer whose work as Head Master of Rugby helped to change the whole climate of English public schools with enormous effects on the moral and social attitudes of the upper classes. In one notable, though characteristic, sermon, Thomas Arnold, striking the same note as Farrar was later...

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