Characterization Shows Pro-Imperial Attitude in Kipling’s Kim

A Research Paper that addresses Kipling’s imperial message in the novel, Kim. The paper specifically uses Kipling’s Use of Characterization to portray his view of British Imperialism.

Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 masterpiece, Kim, has created great controversy regarding the author’s true intent of the novel. Kim centers around an Irish child who is raised as an orphan in India during the height of the British Empire. Through his travels across India, the main character, Kim, struggles to find his place because of the conflict between his white blood and Indian lifestyle. Although some readers simply dismiss Kim as an adventure story, a more careful analysis of Kipling’s characterization of Kim, the Lama, British citizens, and Indian citizens reveals Kipling’s views of imperialism in British India. Careful readers can see Kipling’s pro-British imperialism beliefs through the racial hierarchy in the novel, the stereotypical and biased portrayals of Indian characters, and the overwhelming support for British rule that all Indians in the novel have. Furthermore, the relationship between Kim and his companion, the Lama, along with the transformation of Kim’s character throughout the novel clearly show Kim as a pro-imperialist novel. When one truly analyzes the novel, it is impossible for one to think of Kim as a mere adventure story.

 However, though there is plenty of evidence that supports the theory that Kipling intended Kim to be a novel that helps endorse British imperialism, many readers and critics continue to disregard it as an adventure story. They argue that Kim is a novel intended for children, and so it would be pointless for Kipling to have integrated a deep meaning because that meaning would have been lost on the novel’s readers. Furthermore, some readers argue that the novel fits all of the characteristics of a typical adventure story and that due to its exotic setting, young character, and boyish adventures of spying and traveling, Kim is undeniably an adventure story with no deeper intention other than entertaining child readers. However, as critic Kutzer Daphne points out, “Kim’s assignment to the category of children’s text is problematic, given its complexities of language, structure, and history” (17). Daphne later quotes the critic Sullivan and writes, “what appears to be a boy’s adventure story is also a complex fantasy of idealized imperialism and colonialism” (qtd, in Daphne 22). These critics agree that Kim is an adventure story, but they realize that the novel’s strong imperial attitude renders Kim as more than simply an adventure story. Furthermore, the novel is intentionally in a form that children read because children “will someday be empowered adults…internalizing the values the adults hold…[and] those values include the idea that empire is good and valuable and must be maintained” (21). Thus, by writing about the greatness of British imperialism in a child’s text, Kipling is in essence engraving the idea of British superiority and imperialist attitudes in the generation that will one day take over the country’s affairs within children from the very beginning of their lives. Therefore, not only is the idea that Kim is an adventure story not accurate, but also the idea is completely ridiculous. Kipling’s Kim is undeniably a novel intended to preach the greatness of the British Empire and that of British imperialism.

  Keeping this in mind, readers can see the sense of British superiority in the actions of various characters. Right in the beginning of the novel, Kipling identifies Kim as a British boy raised in India. Just as the British conquered the Indians, the British too conquered the Irish, making Kim’s Irish heritage indicative of his conquered status, which establishes a connection between Kim and the Indians. However, one can see the racial hierarchy because regardless of Kim’s conquered status, the fact that he is white gives him greater privileges than Indians (Mohanram 264). Readers see Kim’s superiority when they look at the narrator’s rationalization behind Kim’s action of kicking Lala Binanath’s child, an Indian, off of the trunnions: “There was some justification for Kim…since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English” (Kipling 5). Thus, Kipling characterizes Kim as a child who has special privileges because of his white skin. Furthermore, readers see Kim’s superiority not only when they compare Kim to children, but also when readers analyze Kim’s interactions with native adults. For example, when Kim later talks to his friend Mahbub Ali, a successful Indian merchant, Ali says, “‘Speak, Sahib: thy black man hears’” (136). Therefore, regardless of the age or status of the Indian, Kim is superior due to his British heritage (Daphne 17). Matters of race are also evident in the behavior of Father Victor, a minister who travels with a British Regiment in India, towards Kim. At first, when the Father believes Kim is an Indian because of Kim’s apparel and physical condition, Father Victor is ready to punish Kim because Father Victor believes Kim is a thief. When the Father finds out that Kim is white, however, Father Victor immediately asks his friend, Bennett, to get Kim a drink. Bennett, a British soldier, apologizes to Kim and says, “‘…I have done the boy an injustice’” (Kipling 88). The attitude of the British adults towards Kim the Indian and Kim the British boy reveals Kipling’s pro-British convictions. The actions and interactions between characters are indicative of Kipling’s pro-British and pro-imperialist attitude, which he conveys to his readers in Kim.

             British superiority is also present in the language and statements that various characters use. First off, throughout the entire book, all Indians refer to all whites, even white children, as “Sahibs.” Sahib is a Hindi word that means master. By having all Indians refer to whites as Sahibs, Kipling is characterizing the natives as inferior to the British colonizers. In addition, many British characters use derogatory words and phrases towards Indians. For example, Father Victor, when talking about Kim, says, “‘O’Hara’s boy leagued with all the Powers of Darkness’” (Kipling 89). Father Victor’s referral to Indians as “Powers of Darkness” is condescending because it gives them a savage and evil identity. Also, when Kim is in the British school, he meets another child who refers to Indians with the racially derogatory term “nigger” (104). On the other hand, the Indians never refer to the British in a negative way. Therefore, it is clear that Kipling intended this novel to present a pro-imperialist perspective. Kipling further expands upon the idea of racial superiority when Kim talks to Mahbub Ali after Kim returns from his British education. Kim tells Ali, “They say at Nucklao that no Sahib should tell a black man that he has made a mistake,” and later on Kim says, “…we were taught that to abstain from action was unbefitting a Sahib” (Kipling 136-212). Kim’s statements show that British education in India was geared towards preaching to children that the white man is superior to the native Indian man no matter what. Therefore, the argument that Kipling chose to make Kim an adventure story for children so that he can subtly engrave in their minds the importance of British imperialism gains more merit. The language and statements of characters show how the characterization of the characters creates a pro-British imperialist sentiment in readers.

            Lastly, readers see racial hierarchy in Kim and Lurgan Sahib’s ability to disguise themselves as Indians and Hurree Babu’s inability to disguise himself as a white man.  Throughout the novel, Kim successfully disguises himself as a child of different racial factions and classes. Kim’s white trainer, Lurgan Sahib, also successfully disguises himself as an Indian, but less successfully than Kim. Conversely, when the Indian Hurree Babu tries to dress as a white man, he is unable to do so. Thus, “…Kim seems to suggest that while European bodies can mime an Indian, the reverse is not possible,” an inability that allows Kipling to establish a racial barrier between the British and the Indians (Mohanram 265).  Furthermore, even when Kim dresses as an Indian, Father Victor is able to simply push his clothing aside and reveal Kim’s white skin. This revelation is symbolic of the superiority of the British because no matter what Kim does or how he dresses and acts, he will always be white (Taylor 59). The author enforces white superiority through his characters’ ability or inability to cross-dress, a skill that subtly endorses the rule of Britain over India.

            Along with what Kipling’s characters say and do, Kipling’s characterization of his characters depict the different types of Indian people in British India. However, this portrayal of the various different factions of Indians is biased in that Kipling’s portrayal does not show the faction of anti-British or poverty stricken Indians. Therefore, Kipling shows a very positive relationship between the imperialist and the imperialized. The factions of Indians he does portray, however, seem morally inferior. This characterization strengthens the British rationale that imperializing India is a moral burden, not just an economic interest (Fernando 175). For example, Mahbub Ali is portrayed as a selfish Indian who only does something if it helps him. When Ali thinks that Kim is a beggar in the beginning of Kim, he refuses to give Kim anything. However when Ali realizes who Kim really is, Ali helps Kim. Also, Kipling describes the Lama as a man whose religious convictions set him apart from reality and rationality. Readers see this in the Lama’s desperate and futile search for the legendary river that relinquishes people of their sins. Moreover, Babu is portrayed as a man who tries to mimic British behavior unsuccessfully so that he can succeed, like the British (Daphne 20). Kipling characterizes his Indian characters negatively to show that British rule is necessary to correct the moral wrongs that the Indian characters embody: selfishness, blind and irrational faith, and hypocrisy. Also, the educated Indian class, during the time in which the novel is set, was actively engaging in an independence moment. Yet, there is no representation of the independence movement in Kim. In fact, Mookerjee, the character that represents the educated class, actually helps the British spy on the Russians and thwart a Russian Invasion (Moss 244). Thus, he is helping the British maintain control of India. Mookerjee’s characterization is a misrepresentation of the educated Indian class, a misrepresentation that helps to “leave the reader…with an image of an India not divided by conflict, but happily united under the British Empire” (Fernando 177). By creating this benign atmosphere in his novel, Kipling is clearly trying to sell the idea of British imperialism to his readers. Furthermore, though Mookerjee is educated, Kipling portrays him in a condescending manner because of Mookerjee’s excessive use of British idiomatic terms to try to blend in with his white associates. Despite his efforts, Mookerjee is unable to become a part of the white ruling class because of his accent, which Kipling portrays through his use of phonetic spelling when Mookerjee talks. Through Mookerjee’s characterization, Kipling denounces the educated Indian class and consequently the independence movement that they were engaging in (177). In essence, through the characterization of all of the Indian characters in Kim, along with the lack of representation of characters that portray the bad aspects of British rule, Kipling is displaying a highly positive endorsement of British imperialism in Kim.

            Kipling’s biased pro-imperialist views are also evident in his characterization of the Sepoy soldier. Thirty years prior to when the novel takes place, there was a brutal rebellion in India that Sepoy soldiers led against the British. During this rebellion, both sides committed treacherous acts, such as killing women and children. The British instigated a conflict with their insensitivity to the Indian’s no meat policy (Moss 244). In the novel, the Sepoy soldier talks about the incident with a British biased response. The soldier says, “A madness ate into all the [Sepoy] Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil…” (Kipling 55).  Not only does the Sepoy soldier put no blame on the British, but he also relates the incident as one of Indian savagery undeserved by the father-like British. By having an Indian character portray the British perspective of the incident, Kipling adds validity and objectivity to the biased viewpoint (Fernando 175). Thus, through the characterization of the Sepoy soldier, Kipling promotes the British imperial cause in India.

            Moreover, Kipling portrays his Indian characters as Indians who want British rule to continue. During the time that the novel takes place, the British believed that Russia was trying to invade India through Afghanistan (Moss 245). The struggle to maintain control of Afghanistan became known as the Great Game (246). In essence, the Great Game was a codename for the British secret service and their actions to thwart Russia, which would consequently ensure the continuance of British rule in India (Daphne 15). Readers can see the biased imperial message in Kipling’s novel when readers consider the fact that all of the major Indian characters in the novel aid the British in the Great Game. For example, Mahbub Ali is an active spy who not only recruits Kim, but is greatly benefited by his service. In the novel, he is not seen as a traitor to his country, but rather a hero (22). Hurree Babu and Mookerjee also aid the British secret service. Lastly, Kim, a boy who has experiences both the Indian and British worlds, chooses to become a spy and therefore a “tool that helps Britain rule India” (14). Through having numerous Indians willingly help the British in the Great Game, Kipling is showing a relationship between India and Britain: Indians value and want to maintain British rule. By having Kim, who through his white education and Indian childhood, choose to help the British, Kipling shows that an objective person would also want to help the British. In fact, Moss points out that “in the world of Kim…British imperial rule is a benevolent gift that no one would ever wish to refute” (249). Kipling’s incomplete representation of the Indians’ view towards the British helps to promote British imperialism. In addition, there is no Indian in the novel that tries to fight against Britain or helps the Russians in the Great Game. Therefore, through his characters, Kipling once again shows the greatness and benevolence of British rule in India.

            Also, Kipling has his Indian characters praise British rule and show how it has benefited the country; however, there is no mention of any bad aspect of British rule. After the Sepoy rebellion, the British began to build India’s infrastructure by building railroads, creating roads, and establishing a good education system (Moss 244). Kipling doesn’t fail to represent these changes. For example, Mookerjee, as mentioned earlier, represents the Indian educated class that has benefited from the British initiative of building schools and creating a good education system. Also, when Kim and the Lama are traveling on the train, two Indian riders mention how great the trains are and how they are a great gift from the government. A Sikh man says to the Lama, “Do not be afraid…of the train…[because] this thing is the work of the Government” (Kipling 31). A money lender on the train says to Kim, “We sit…side by side with all castes and peoples” (31). These statements show that the Indians feel blessed by the British government because the government gave India trains. Also, the latter statement shows that the trains allow an India divided by different castes and classes to be united and “democratized” (Daphne 23). These two characters show the aspects of British rule that are benefiting Indian society, and therefore bettering the view of British imperialism of India. In Kim, there is no mention of the British occupants’ exploitation of the Indian people economically or any other negative consequences of the presence of Britain in India. Kipling’s characters therefore show the good, but not the bad aspects of British India, further promoting the imperialist cause.

            Kipling brilliantly portrays the Britain-India relationship in his characterization of Kim and the Lama and with the two characters’ interactions with one another. British imperialism in India began with the economic interests of the Britain’s East India Company (Moss 243). India was Britain’s economic jewel, a relationship that is seen in Kim. The critic Sullivan says, “…the friendship between Kim and his Lama is Kipling’s fable of the ideal relationship between the Englishman…and the Indian” (qtd. in Daphne 243).  In Kim’s and the Lama’s relationship, Kim represents England and the Lama represents India. When readers consider these symbolic representations, they can see Britain’s economic need of India when the Lama pays for Kim’s education. Kim would not have been able to continue his education had it not been for the Lama’s money. Also, Kim becomes the Lama’s disciple, a fact that Kim publicly announces and is proud of when he says, “‘Is [the Lama] not wise and holy? I am his disciple’” (Kipling 46). Kipling emphasizes Kim’s servitude to the Lama so drastically that when Kim sees the Lama after a prolonged absence, Kipling describes Kim as “touch[ing] his master’s feet” (190). However, Daphne points out that though Kim is the Lama’s “subordinate…the reader never believes in Kim’s inferior status…” (19). This is so because the Lama, and therefore India, needs Kim, or Britain. Kim even tells the Lama that “‘all earth would have picked thy bones within ten miles of Lahore city if I had not guarded thee’” (Kipling 63). Evidence of the Lama’s vulnerability is present when the two characters buy a ticket at the train station: the seller tries to give them a different ticket than Kim and the Lama wanted, but Kim catches the seller and receives the correct ticket (30). If the Lama was not with Kim, he would have been fooled. Kipling’s portrayal of the Lama’s need for Kim shows that the British-India relationship is not just one where England needs India to survive economically, but more importantly one where India needs England to survive as a country. Also, the Lama continuously says to people he meets that Kim is sent to help the Lama find his River and escape the wheel. The wheel is the continuous caste system that separates India. The act of separating oneself from the wheel is symbolic to equality between people that can only be brought forth through death (Sandison 185). Therefore, since Kim is helping the Lama find his river so that the Lama can escape the wheel and be delivered into the hands of God, Kipling is representing India’s need for England India on a moral level because England is helping to unite India. Since the Lama says that God sent Kim to aid the Lama, Kipling is showing that India views England as a god-sent savior. Also, Daphne points out that Kim is possessive of the Lama because Kim always calls the Lama “his” and protects the Lama from everyone else. Therefore, Kipling portrays a “colonial urge for possession” within the Kim-Lama relationship. At the end of the novel, Kim uses his relationship with the Lama to travel to the North and carry out a Great Game mission secretively. This shows Kim “subverting eastern spirituality to the causes of Western colonialism” (Daphne 22). Kipling is thus establishing that British needs are always more important than everything else through the two characters’ relationship. Through the relationship of Kim and the Lama, Kipling is able to show that India needs Britain and that continuing British rule in India is a high priority for the benefit of Indians, more so than the benefit of Britain.

             Lastly, Kipling skillfully shows India as it could be without British rule versus what it has become due to British rule through the transformation in Kim’s character from the beginning to the end of the novel (Daphne 21). On one level, Kim’s transformation depicts the cultural order that British rule created in India (20). Kim is a child who is Irish and British, but raised in India and accustomed to its religions and cultures. Kim is “uncertain [of his] status-Indian or English” and he therefore is like India, a country divided by its many religions and cultural differences (18). At first, Kim keeps his white past a secret when he refuses to tell the Lama of his past (Kipling 84). Kim even disguises himself as a Hindu boy of different castes in order to fit into society (Daphne 19). Because of his continuous shifts in personas, he loses site of who he is: throughout the novel Kim says, “’I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?’” (Kipling 281) However, when Kim starts receiving a British education at St. Xavier and training from Lurgan Sahib on how to be a spy, Kim begins to learn his place and purpose in life. Kim’s British education tames him, making him rational – a transformation that allows Kim to break away from the weakness of Indian society. This is seen when Kim is able to avoid hypnosis when he thinks in English, but is susceptible to hypnosis when he thinks in Hindi (Kipling 62). When his training is completed, Kim becomes a chain-man and helps the British maintain and spread its power over India. This is symbolically represented when Kim helps the British map Northern India. Additionally, Kim starts to accept his British past, an acceptance readers see when Kim proclaims himself as a white man: “I am a Sahib” (212). Thus, his transformation makes him apart of the British ruling class (Daphne 20). A child that was once intrigued by the unknown and mysterious is tamed and has learned order. He no longer likes the irrational (Taylor 64). As Daphne says, “Kipling appears to be suggesting that just as Kim’s transformation, though it may involve losses for him, is both inevitable and largely for the good, so too is India’s transformation” (20). Through Kim’s transformation with respect to his acceptance of his British status despite his mixed heritage, Kipling shows that the British made India into a united country. Just as Kim was tamed, Kipling is asserting that India came to order because of British rule. Lastly, Kipling shows that just as Kim became a part of British society willingly, India too has become a part of Britain. Through Kim’s characterization, Kipling is able to depict British India as a great outcome when compared to what India would have been without the British.

            Kim cannot be disregarded as a novel that was intended to be a simple adventure story, especially when one considers the heavy pro-imperial characterization in Kim. The characters portray a racial hierarchy in favor of the British which helps to further elevate the British occupation of India. Also, the stereotypical and biased representations of the characters and their love for British rule help to further advocate British imperialism in India. The relationship between the Lama and Kim, along with the transformation of Kim’s character, both shows the necessity and benevolence of British rule in India. One cannot dismiss all of this evidence merely as coincidences. It is clear that Kipling intended Kim to promote British imperialism. Any careful reader can see that Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an adventure story that was intended to illustrate the greatness of British imperialism in India.

Works Cited

Daphne, Kutzer M. “Kipling’s Rules of the Game.” Empire’s Children. 2000: 12-46. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Parsippany High School Lib., Parsippany, NJ, 19 February 2009, .

Fernando, Tamara. Critical Essay on Kim. Novels for Students. Ed. Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 21. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005. 174-178. 28 vols.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. New York: Del Publishing Co., 1975.

Mohanram, Radhika. “Demographia.” European Journal of English Studies. 3 December 2005: 251-270. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Parsippany High School Lib., Parsippany, NJ, 19 February 2009, .

Moss, Joyce. “Kim.” World Literature and its Times. Ed. Michael LaBlanc. vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. 243-251. 7 vols.

Sandison, A.  G. “Rudyard Kipling.” British Writers. Ed. Ian Scott-Kilvert. vol. 6. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983. 165-206. 7 vols.

Taylor, Jesse. “Kipling’s Imperial Aestheticism: Epistemologies of Art and Empire in Kim.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920. 2009: 49-69. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Parsippany High School Lib., Parsippany, NJ, 19 February 2009, .

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