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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 15 ‘Dayspring Mishandled’

Extract

Anyone attempting a reading of ‘Dayspring Mishandled’ encounters two preliminary problems: one local and particular, the other more general. The first of these is the puzzle of the story’s epigraph. Critics have taken up the mention of mandragora as a reference to Manallace’s hatred of Castorley. Maintained for years, this obsessive loathing, like mandragora, has been a drug that numbed Manallace’s pain at the cost of corroding his mind. At first sight, this seems a plausible suggestion. However, if the epigraph was meant simply to point to the horrors of addiction, making a straightforward link between the psychological, and even clinical, effects of mandragora and those of Manallace’s hatred, then why head the tale with a quotation from Charles Nodier’s La Fée aux Miettes, [The Crumb Fairy]. An epigraph from [say] De Quincey’s ‘Pains of Opium’ section of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, among other possible choices, might have seemed more appropriate, as well as being far better known. Nodier’s piece is not a dark, baleful account of some drug’s effect. Rather, as Kipling’s friend and literary mentor George Saintsbury remarked, it is ‘a charming legend […] full of grace, fancy and pathos’, in which ‘Hoffman and Voltaire combine’.1

More to the purpose, in Nodier’s tale, the finding of the singing mandragora, heralded in the quotation Kipling uses for his epigraph, leads to the lifting of the curse for which the plant is the unique remedy. Like Saintsbury’s comments, Georg Brandes’ chapter on Charles Nodier in his...

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