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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 14 ‘The Village that Voted the Earth Was Flat’


Much of the subtlety of ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat’ and the disturbing undercurrent within it come from the way in which, from the outset, the story gives the reader contradictory signals. One of Kipling’s best-known tales involving a practical joke based upon knowingness and the use of superior knowledge, it is also one of the most ambivalent in the attitude it takes to the joke and to those who play it. It is a tale in which the characters’ initial responses, and our own, are threaded with reservations, demurrals and second thoughts.

The narrative carefully places the men to whom it introduces us, before they are caught by the Huckley policeman for speeding. Hints of the disreputable, of sharp practice, and doubtful motives are mixed with other indications of ambition, energy, dynamism and of success in the making of money by instinct and innovation. Woodhouse is both a ‘doctor’ in the publishing world whose business ‘was the treatment and cure of sick journals’ and, in the same field, a predator in search of rich pickings: ‘When he stooped on a carcase there was sure to be meat.’1 Knowing little of the aims and practices of those who write for the newspapers he takes over [‘he was wisely ignorant of journalism’], he grasps what makes for commercial success and knows how a ‘new start which can be given by gold injections’ [147]. That last image moves the reader away from newspaper investigations or communication, each...

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