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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 7 ‘Lispeth’


The qualities Kipling identified with superior knowledge and knowingness may in some cases be characterised by their absence. With those people who lack such qualities, we may see in what he thought these traits consisted and how essential he thought them to be. Following the procedure of apophatic theology, it would be useful to look at three examples where superior knowledge and knowingness are defined by what they are not: instances of that pride and zeal with which Kipling’s Angel of Mirth tried to contend.1

The epigraph of ‘Lispeth’ [1886] points to a failure in the version of Christianity offered to the convert: ‘Look, you have cast out Love’ indicates a betrayal of the faith’s most essential qualities. If Christianity is not a means of love and transformation, then what purpose does that religion serve? ‘Your cold Christ and tangled Trinities’,2 which the speaker in the epigraph abandons, suggests a belief that has become an arid system, or a social and intellectual construction that cannot nourish the individual heart. However, an early reference in the tale develops and modifies the implications of the opening poem. The Kotgarh Valley in which Lispeth’s parents lived, and where they were born, had been the centre of operations for the Moravian brethren. The story takes place ‘after the reign of the Moravian missionaries […] but before Kotgarh had quite forgotten her title of “Mistress of the Northern Hills”’ [33]. This reference to an earlier happier time in Kotgarh would have been...

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