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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 10 ‘Three and – an Extra’


Pert and cockney and cruel, and full of that precocious old age which is the worst thing in this difficult cosmos, a thing which combines the brutality of youth with the disillusionment of antiquity, which is old age without its charity and youth without its hope.1

Untypical of Chesterton’s usual tone in critical writing, this comment is also unlike the rest of what he has to say about Kipling’s work. Elsewhere, Chesterton overlooks their political differences to offer accounts of Kipling that are both spirited and generous. Here, however, there is something else. It is more than the gulf between an Imperialist and a Little Englander. Kipling’s knowingness, his ‘stale, bitter modernity’ is what grates on Chesterton, jolting him into a sharpness to which he rarely surrendered. This response is an interesting one, raising the whole subject of knowingness in Kipling’s writing. Hostile comments on Kipling, of which Robert Buchanan’s ‘The Voice of the Hooligan’ [Contemporary Review, December 1899] is the best-known, condemned what they saw as vulgar insolence and brutality. Chesterton is more precise. What he describes combines the bumptiousness of youth with the cynicism found in unpleasant old people. Chesterton is irritated by Kipling’s assumption, as narrator, that he sees through and around things; that what he describes is all familiar territory, unsurprising to any but the naive.

Such a reaction from Chesterton, a broadminded, generous-spirited writer, is worth reflecting upon. Ready enough to acknowledge Kipling’s ←143 | 144→virtues, especially his ‘brilliant part in...

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