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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 12 The Imminent Peril and Narrow Escape of the Knowing Narrator

Extract

First published in The Week’s News, Allahabad [1891] and reprinted in Many Inventions [1893], in the opinion of many, ‘Brugglesmith’ is one of Kipling’s most successful comic stories. Daniel Karlin remarks that, although ‘Brugglesmith’ does not equal ‘The Village That Voted the Earth was Flat’ [1917] in ‘scope and depth’, it is equal to it in the perfect planning and comic effect it achieves, and is a ‘consummate descent into indignity’.1

Such observations justly describe both the meticulous effects in the story and the pleasure they give readers. Yet, when these effects have been noted, there remains, largely unremarked, another factor at work in ‘Brugglesmith’. The story’s comedy is rooted in, and draws its power from fears of a particularly acute kind. Rather than serene or consummate, the farce of ‘Brugglesmith’ grows out of danger and desperation.

Drawn from the nautical tales of William Clark Russell [1844–1911], the story’s epigraph, in bald factual terms, alerts the reader to the possibility, in life, of utter ruin: ‘This day the ship went down, and all hands was drowned but me.’2 At first sight, such an epigraph may seem merely amusing in its inappropriateness. A drunkard persistently forcing his company on another man might be a nuisance but, in most circumstances, hardly a disaster. Yet, perhaps, the quotation from Russell should alert us to deeper and more serious issues in what follows.

‘Brugglesmith’ opens in a familiar and reassuring Kipling setting, the world of work and...

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