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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 6 ‘A Bank Fraud’

Extract

‘A Bank Fraud’ has claims to readers’ attention beyond the pleasure it gives as a narrative. It offers one of many glimpses Kipling provides of the manipulations, bending of rules and even corruption (in this case, innocent) that colonial rule permitted. Secondly, ‘A Bank Fraud’ suggests incipient modernist qualities in Kipling’s writing.

Accepting that colonial domination in India was morally indefensible should not mean ignoring its varied aims and particular effects. Those who bent, or even made, the rules used their power both to exploit and to show compassion. The historical record offered extremes as wide as Warren Hastings in Bengal and the Lawrences in the Punjab. Sir Henry Lawrence (1806–57), President of the Board of Administration in the newly conquered Punjab, after 1849 together with his brother Sir John Lawrence (1811–78), also a member of the Board, offered outstanding examples of benevolent, if high-handed rule, forcing through many valuable reforms. In both his verse and fiction, Kipling recorded how far, in both directions, power might be exploited.

Daniel Bivona has pointed to a contradiction within British colonial rule in India, ‘the strange anomaly whereby a system of rule built on a bureaucratic foundation would be eventually undermined by the need for it to be carried out by “charismatic” leaders’.1 The ‘Punjab style’, based on the effective, beneficent despotism of the Lawrence brothers in the Punjab in the 1840s acquired prestige when that province, with decisive effect, stayed loyal to the British in the...

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