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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 9 ‘Watches of the Night’

Extract

The somewhat gnomic epigraph to ‘Watches of the Night’ raises issues the tale explores in a manner intended to leave readers pondering and uncertain. ‘What is in the Brahmin’s books that is in the Brahmin’s heart’1 points to a connection between the words of sacred texts and the emotions of those who reflect on them; to the way in which scriptural teachings may be used to shape or validate the existing predilections of believers. The second part of the epigraph disturbs as well as puzzles. ‘Neither you nor I knew there was so much evil in the world’ [97]. Does this mean that the Brahmin, through his study of the texts, is better informed about mankind’s moral nature than will be the case with ordinary people? Or does it imply that his reading has made him suspicious and censorious? Does he project onto the world his own disturbed emotional state and then give his slanted vision the authority of some holy book? Or, even worse, is he himself the embodiment of an evil hard for most people to imagine: an exploiter and perverter of religious teachings?

The tale’s first sentence points to the disparity between the trivial events the narrative records and their consequences. A practical joke has begun to grow serious. The fact that the effect of the joke is still continuing without check and that its final results are unknown, but increasingly alarming, is suggestive. It points to processes that could not have been understood or...

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