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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 13 The Knowing Narrator: ‘On the City Wall’


It is worth considering the relation between this story’s epigraph, from Joshua 2: 15, and the narrative that follows it. Lalun, the courtesan, like the Old Testament Rahab the harlot, has a house on the wall of a city from which, like her Biblical analogue, she plans to help a fugitive escape. However, the epigraph points to a contrast between Rahab and Lalun which is more important than this incidental similarity. The two harlots differ fundamentally in their understanding of their situations. In The Book of Joshua, Rahab, a shrewd, well-informed woman, who has grasped the military and political position in which she has been placed, is determined to make her peace with circumstances. Two spies whom Joshua has sent into the Canaanite city of Jericho seek refuge in her house. Hiding them in stalks of flax on her roof [Joshua 2: 6], she explains her motives and exacts a promise from them. In a modern phrase, she knows the direction in which history is going. She has heard that the God of Israel dried up the Red Sea for his chosen people and ‘what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites […] Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed’ [Joshua 2: 10].

Recognising the tide of events, Rahab proposes a bargain to her visitors. If she helps them escape, then they ‘will also shew kindness unto my father’s house’ and ‘save alive’ her extended family, preserving all their possessions [Joshua 2: 12–13]. The Israelite spies...

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