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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 11 ‘My Sunday at Home’

Extract

The metamorphosis of the raw materials of knowingness into art forms is one of the most interesting and significant aspects of the way Kipling employs the stance of superior knowledge in his fiction. In many cases, knowingness is morally and psychologically accepted by readers. It may amount to little more than handing on to them pieces of information they do not possess. Generally, the manner in which the narrator informed the public about the Raj’s administration or Simla’s social life was wry and amused. For the most part, too, it was light and disengaged. It did not suggest ill-digested anger or resentment.

There are other stories where knowingness has been bought at a higher price and where detachment does not come readily. What the narrator has learned exacts a cost in wounded feelings. To handle this, turning resentment into art, and to have a knowing narrator’s voice readers do not find repellent, involves literary skill and aesthetic control.

It might be useful to look at two examples of the way in which Kipling moulded his own personal irritations into a knowingness that might inform and entertain readers. In the first instance, ‘An Error in the Fourth Dimension’, he is only partially successful in achieving this result. In the second case, ‘My Sunday at Home’, he carries the process to the desired end. By juxtaposing the two tales, which belong to the same period in his career, we are better able to see both the problems he...

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