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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 8 : ‘The Conversion of Aurelian McGoggin’

Extract

There is a toughness, even a measure of brutality in the epigraph with which Kipling prefaces ‘The Conversion of Aurelian McGoggin’. It is a harsher version of that image of horse-management that appears in the verses introducing some other stories in Plain Tales from the Hills. Usually, the rider, here as elsewhere, standing for life itself, is mild in the way in which it controls human beings. For the large majority of those who keep the rules of ordinary social behaviour, no discipline is needed. Life has no lesson to teach those who know how to avoid irritating individuals or groups they encounter by displays of egotism or through parading their obsessions or ideologies. These well-conditioned people, life can ‘ride with an idle whip, ride with an unused heel’.1

For the obstinate, however, painful experiences are in store: ‘When the colt must be taught to feel/ The lash that falls, and the curb that galls, and the sting of the rowelled steel’ [117]. The fourth line of the epigraph, with its three different kinds of discomfort, emphasises the rider’s determination to end intolerable conduct. Such behaviour is an outrage, incurring an almost savage penalty.

The story’s title, followed by such an epigraph, raises certain expectations in the minds of readers acquainted with Victorian popular literature of a kind providing matter for edification. Is what follows to be a story of repentance within a familiar religious pattern, an account of how an infidel is forced to acknowledge...

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