Few modern English readers could enjoy Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’ in the way Kipling intended it to be enjoyed. Kipling was an Imperialist, and ‘Kim’ represents attitudes towards British rule in India which nowadays are unacceptable. But as a piece of fiction it does have fine fictional qualities, and it also and deserves its unique put in place the history of English literature.
The novel embodies a panoramic celebration of Of india, presenting as it really does, a wonderful picture of their landscapes, both urban and rural, and a exciting array of native character types who, for the most part, are warm, generous and tolerant.
Beyond that, ‘Kim’ is an UK essay writing adventure story of the Empire, giving it something in common with the works of fiction of Joseph Conrad, such as Heart of Darkness (which is now also assaulted for its colonial attitudes). The readership in 1901 would have been fascinated by ‘Kim’ as an exotic tale of adventure overseas.
By simply birth Kim is an Irish boy, Kimball O’Hara, whose father was obviously a enthusiast. But he has developed as an orphan on the streets of Lahore, ‘a poor white of the very poorest’, appeared after by a half-cast woman, probably a prostitute.
The storyplot commences when Betty teams up with a Tibetan lama, Teshoo lama, who wanders into Lahore to look at the Buddhist relics in Lahore museum. The lama is on a Buddhist quest, following ‘The Way’ to free himself from the ‘Wheel of Things’.
Kim is fascinated by the wandering stranger, and when the lama assumes that Kim has been directed to him as his ‘chela’ (disciple) Kim easily accepts the role and joins him on his journey, with the objective of also following his own quest, to find the meaning of a prophecy that was made by his father. This particular prophecy eventually brings about the second strand of the plot - Kim’s recruitment as a spy in the British Secret Services.
The friendship between this unlikely pair is one of the primary attractions of ‘Kim’, which is a novel about male friendships, mostly between Kim and Teshoo lama, but in addition between Kim and Colonel Creighton and his colleagues.
Females do play a role in the novel, but not as objects of romantic or sexual connection. Women feature as prostitutes, or providers, though some respect is shown for the two principle women characters, the woman of Shamlegh, and the widow of Kulu, the latter taking on a motherly role towards the finish, healing Kim when this individual is ill.
The two companions become interdependent, Kim’s association with the lama providing him with an excuse to travel around India, and an ideal cover (later in the story) for his role as a spy, while the lama often relies on Kim to do their begging and locate them shelter, often physically leaning on Kim’s shoulder as they travel.
Kim defines his identity during his activities by being available to influences; responding positively in people he can look up to, while warding off influences which he finds abrasive. When the story opens the influences on him have been almost exclusively Indian native. His white skin, his identity papers, great built-in tendency to own and rule will prove to be main to the identity he could be seeking to build, but neither at the beginning nor the finish does he think of himself as a ‘sahib’, and his face with the white male’s world is at first a traumatic experience.
In section 5, when he finally finds the prophesied ‘Nine hundred or so first-class devils, whose Lord was a Red Bull on a green field’, (his father’s old regiment), he is captured by the soldiers and his instinct is to get away back to the lama. This is the first close experience with a group of white men Kim has had in his life, and Kipling uses it to show a clash of native and British mentality, with Kim and the suram showing the native side, and the members of the regiment showing aspects of British mentality which Kipling holds up for criticism.
Kim is effectively imprisoned by the military, required to wear for the first time ‘a terrible stiff suit that rasped his arms and legs’, and told that the bazaar is ‘out o’ bounds’. And his torments grow worse as Kipling continually subject him to the worst that the British have to offer. The schoolmaster is a brutal insensitive man from whom Kim scents ‘evil’, and the drummer young man who guards Kim, symbolizing the average young British soldier, is shown being an ignorant fool who telephone calls the natives ‘niggers’.
Within Colonel Creighton Kim discovers a white man he can respect; a father-figure, a European counterpart of the lama. Creighton is wise, educated, experienced, and compassionate; the opposite conclusion of the spectrum to Reverend Bennett, the drummer boy, and the schoolmaster. He acknowledges Kim’s intelligence and special skills, and although he or she plays a tiny part in the story he or she is, as the highest-ranking representative of the British Government, and anyone to whom Betty is responsible, a pillar of the entire novel and one of the most crucial impacts on Kim in the mission to define himself.
Whenever his schooling is complete Kim’s training as a spy under Creighton’s acquaintances continues, one of his teachers being the ‘shaib’ Lurgan. Lurgan, in his house adorned with routine devil-dance masks, and his ability to heal unwell jewels, seems to be a practitioner of the occult, and perhaps in creating this character Kipling was sketching on his interest in the mysticism of Dame Blavatsky and Theosophists which was popular during his youth.