Friday, December 7, 2012

It is said to be the most gruesome story in any language. - loathsome Kipling

George Orwell, in his 1942 essay “Rudyard Kipling,” gives me some peace of mind.  I have been puzzled by Kipling’s reputation.  It turns out the bad Kipling predates Edward Said and Homi Bhaba; it was there all along:

Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a byword for fifty years.  During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.

I will take a crack at the despised Kipling.  Let us open our Complete Works to “The Mark of the Beast,” near the end of Life’s Handicap (1891), a story that is never anthologized.  Some contemporary reviewers described it  as “poisonous stuff” and “loathsome…  Mr. Kipling at his very worst,” and they are not wrong (the post's title can also be found at the link).

The “Kipling” narrator and “[m]y friend Strickland of the Police, who knows as much of natives of India as is good for any man” become entangled with another Englishman, Fleete, who has been cursed by a temple leper and appears to be in danger of turning into a werewolf.  Strickland and “Kipling” capture the leper and torture him until he lifts the curse:

Strickland wrapped a towel round his hand and took the gun-barrels out of the fire.  I put the half of the broken walking stick through the loop of fishing-line and buckled the leper comfortably to Strickland’s bedstead…

Strickland shaded his eyes with his hands for a moment and we got to work.  This part is not to be printed.

And a line of dots interrupts the text.  A few hours later – Fleete has recovered from what he thinks was just a bender and makes a comment that causes this reaction:

[Strickland] caught hold of the back of a chair, and, without warning, went into an amazing fit of hysterics.  It is terrible to see a strong man overtaken with hysteria.  Then it struck me that we had fought for Fleete's soul with the Silver Man in that room, and had disgraced ourselves as Englishmen for ever, and I laughed and gasped and gurgled just as shamefully as Strickland, while Fleete thought that we had both gone mad.  We never told him what we had done.

So, Kipling condones the torture of Indians.  Note that there is no frame story here, that Kipling deliberately makes his fictional stand-in one of the torturers.  The non-fictional Kipling is, of course, inventing the whole thing.  Still, here we have the imperialist English doing what needs to be done to control India.

Of course, the reason Fleete was cursed is that he drunkenly desecrated a temple of Hanuman, to the horror of both Strickland and “Kipling” (“[Strickland] said that we all three might have been knifed”).  The narrator insinuates that Fleete’s crime is deeply significant, and that Strickland’s vaunted knowledge is useless:

Strickland hates being mystified by natives, because his business in life is to overmatch them with their own weapons.  He has not yet succeeded in doing this, but in fifteen or twenty years he will have made some small progress.

And then the final sentence upends the entire story:

I cannot myself see that this step is likely to clear up the mystery; because, in the first place, no one will believe a rather unpleasant story, and, in the second, it is well known to every right-minded man that the gods of the heathen are stone and brass, and any attempt to deal with them otherwise is justly condemned.

The sensible imperialist, in other words, “justly” condemns Strickland and the narrator not for torture but for superstition for acting as if Indian beliefs are meaningful.

“The Mark of the Beast” is certainly loathsome, but it is unclear what is to be loathed, or who, exactly, is the beast.


  1. 'George Orwell, in his 1942 essay “Rudyard Kipling,” gives me some piece of mind.'
    Peace of mind, I hope.
    Have you read "Baa Baa Black sheep"? It explains something of what made Kipling what he was. Some of his stories about WWI carry hatred and cruelty even further, though some of the later stories involve cooler examinations of hatred.

  2. Thanks for the correction, now incorporated. I mean, I am relieved that this is an old problem, a fundamental Kipling problem.

    I have read "Baa Baa Black Sheep" but had not considered its relevance, obvious now that you mention it. A boy treated cruelly may well have a heightened interest in cruelty.

  3. Not just 'a heightened interest in cruelty', but a taste for and approval of cruelty in Kipling's case, I think. Saki and Orwell- also children of colonial families sent back to Britain- also had this obsession, but Kipling seems to have been even more affected- and damaged as a man and a writer than they were.

  4. How interesting and illuminating. Does the idea of "approval" come from a particular text or set of texts, or is it assembled from more scattered evidence?

    I am trying - failing, but trying - to be careful of generalization because I have read so little of Kipling, and also because his irony is so incessant that he undermines interpretation. Sometimes he seems to undermine his own point. The problem of cruelty is now clear enough, though.

    It is not an idea I have progressed with, but I am beginning to wonder how Kipling's interest in cruelty differs from or resembles that of Nabokov.

    I was just wondering if would be a good idea to read Saki, if he would be helpful here. Now I no longer wonder. Maybe this winter.

  5. Oh, Saki's a treat. If it's cruelty you want, head for "Sredni Vashtar."

  6. I'm confused. Sredni Vashtar is actually a sweet and tender story about how a little boy's prayers to a god are answered against all odds, isn't it?

    In later books Kipling sublimated (or congealed) his cruelty into revenge stories. This focus on revenge renders books like Stalky and Co. positively unbearable to read for me. However in absolute masterpieces like The Vortex, The village that voted that the earth was flat, Mary Postgate, and Dayspring Mishandled, Kipling managed to make revenge interesting and not just cruel.

    1. The little boy's prayers and his god's behaviour aren'r sweet and tender though. There's a lot of argument about just what kind of masterpiece "Mary Postgate" is. There's almost more hatred and revenge than the story can hold in "Dayspring Mishandled"
      As Tom says "his irony is so incessant that he undermines interpretation". Kipling seems to identify with bullies as well as the bullied and to justify cruelty when the right people are cruel for the right reasons. There are individual stories- especially the ones set in WWI- which show this, but background assumptions and throwaway remarks and attitudes in his work also show it too. If I remember rightly he doesn't show it with the same harshness in his children's books.

    2. Thank you for that very insightful remark about how to Kipling revenge was rightful if done by the right people for the right reasons. It also applies to the plot of Sredni Vashtar rather well, it being a revenge story and all. It also sheds light on the story being commented on this post. There are two revenges taking place, both of them wrongful. The first one is wrong because it's done by the wrong people (the natives) for the right reasons: to avenge a desecration. The second one is wrong because, even if executed by the right people it was done out of superstitious fear.

      As an example of Kipling's ironically changing registers, which so often disorient readers and intentionally obfuscate Kipling's point, consider the following quote from The Vortex, a story filled with humor, slapstick, pratfalls and mischief told tongue in cheek. Notice how Kipling describes his grievance against a man who doesn't shut up ('The Voice') and his soon to be answered prayers for revenge and his shift to a state of grace at the end.

      We dined at eight. At nine Mr. Lingnam was only drawing abreast of things Imperial. At ten the Agent-General, who's supposed to earn his salary, was shamelessly dozing on the sofa. At eleven he and Penfentenyou went to bed. At midnight Mr. Lingnam set to federating the Empire in earnest. I remember that he had three alternative plans. As a dealer in words, I plumped for the resonant third—‘Reciprocally co-ordinated Senatorial Hegemony’—which he then elaborated in detail for three-quarters of an hour. At half-past one he urged me to have faith and to remember that nothing mattered except the Idea. Then he retired to his room, accompanied by one glass of cold water, and I went into the dawn-lit garden and prayed to any Power that might be off duty for the blood of Mr. Lingnam, Penfentenyou, and the Agent-General.

      To me, as I have often observed elsewhere, the hour of earliest dawn is fortunate, and the wind that runs before it has ever been my most comfortable counselor.

      ‘Wait!’ it said, all among the night’s expectant rosebuds. ‘To-morrow is also a day. Wait upon the Event!’

      I went to bed so at peace with God and Man and Guest.

    3. 'There are two revenges taking place, both of them wrongful. The first one is wrong because it's done by the wrong people (the natives) for the right reasons: to avenge a desecration. The second one is wrong because, even if executed by the right people it was done out of superstitious fear.'

      Er, no. it isn't just revenge, but cruelty that Kiplinf approves of, Ithink, if done by the right people.
      It isn't revenge by the right [white] people here either. It's an attempt to cure Fleete. It's notable that torture is Strickland's first resort when dealing with a 'native'. Another problem with Kipling and Saki is that their vengeances are often disproportional to the offence that inspires them. Both could recognise and deal with the tendency but the cruelty is often gratuitous and appears without the author thinking.

    4. Or the author is thinking and wants the cruelty in there. "This is what brave men have to do in the name of empire" or something like that and Kipling is going to make sure those softies back in England get it rubbed in their face.

      This is not what I have concluded about Kipling, but he is making sure I keep the possibility open. And then I have to ask why?

      Kipling gives his readers really good problems to work on.

  7. Really interesting post and discussion. Is Kipling a sadistic imperialist or the first unflinching post-colonialist? Unlikely that we will ever know. He probably had elements of both in him. Ultimately it doesn't matter. What makes him so compelling is that he paints such vivid and memorable pictures of human tendencies that they will outlive both the concerns of imperialists and post-colonials--taking on yet new meanings in further generations. Similar to the way that Beowulf and the Iliad long outlived the concerns of their creators.

  8. I put a thank-you up in the new post, but again - thanks so much for this discussion. You all have given me a lot of ideas to carry with me as I read Kipling.

  9. I have been reading your series on Kipling with great interest, but with conspicuous silence. This is because, for reasons too deep even for myself to understand fully, I have generally given Kipling a wide berth.

    Naturally, given my background, I bring an awful lot of baggage to Kipling. I was born in India of Indian parents merely 12 or so years after India gained independence (12 years and 6 months, almost exactly); and, at the age of 5, I arrived in the country that had previously ruled India. I was, and remain, I guess, an immigrant; or, as I prefer to call myself, an “émigré”: it sounds so much more distinguished. And it gets even more complicated: in the 47 years and more I have lived in Britain, I have absorbed and come to like Western cultures in general, and British cultures in particular (I use the plural form of “culture”advisedly). And while I am proud (why proud? I don’t know) of the Indian elements that remain inevitably a part of me, I have grown up so far from the culture into which I had been born that I have now come to find many other aspects of Indian culture puzzling, or even alien.

    OK, so much for confessional. The question is: How should I react to Kipling, a writer who, for all his myriad complexities and ambiguities regarding race and imperialism, nonetheless regarded Indian people as essentially childlike at best, and incapable of ruling themselves? I could, of course, be openly anti-Kipling, thus exemplifying the trait I often deplore elsewhere of judging literature on the basis of how closely one agrees with what it says, and condemning it should one find what it says offensive to one’s sensibilities; or I could be pro-Kipling, thus making a self-conscious and ostentatious display of my critical fairness and open-mindedness. I think I have avoided both these paths by generally ignoring Kipling.

    I think, also, that I do find myself resenting the fact that the only literature depicting British India that is taken at all seriously on the international stage is that written by Western writers, while writings by Indian writers of the same era are routinely ignored, as if the very fact of these writers being Indian and writing in their own languages renders their writings insignificant. Ask even well-read Westerners to name novelists who had depicted British India, and instantly, they will name Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, Paul Scott. Then ask them to name some Indian writers of the same era, and the silence will be deafening.

    But I do realise I need to come to terms with Kipling. So far, I have read only “Kim”, which I thought was frankly middling stuff; and a very small handful of short stories, which I must admit have been rather impressive. On reading your posts, I found out “The Mark of the Beast”: it is, indeed, a remarkable story. It is, in essence, a horror story, and as it progresses, the true source of the horror becomes increasingly apparent: and that in itself is the greatest horror of all. It was a marvellous stroke to present it not merely from the perspective of a first person narrator, but to identify this first person narrator with the author himself.

    You have convinced me. I really should read more of Kipling’s short stories.

  10. One reason to read and write about Kipling is that he attracts such good comments.

    Your description of "The Mark of the Beast" is exactly right.

    The 2011 Cambridge Companion to Rudyard Kipling includes an essay titled "Reading Kipling in India" by Harish Trevedi, likely a good starting point on this issue.

    You remind me that as I pursue Kipling it would be worthwhile to spend some time with Tagore's fiction, too, and with R. K. Narayan, and with - who else? I have no idea.

    1. It's possibly best to head straight for this anthology of Indian writing edited by Amit Chaudhuri:

      Included are writers from various parts of India, and Chaudhuri's introductory essays are also very interesting. This should give you some impression of which writers you may like.

      As far as Bengali literature goes, Tagore was, of course, a towering figure, but he was primarily a poet and songwriter (he wrote both the lyrics and composed the music for literally thousands of songs), and his prose fiction is variable.

      I would heartily recommend "Pather Panchali" and its sequel "Aparajito" by Bibhuthibhishan Banerji (these two novels formed the basis of Satyajit Ray's three films comprising the "Apu Trilogy"):

      Anurava Sinha is a prolific translator of modern & contemporary Bengali literature. There is a full list of his translations on his website:

      Also, quite unaccountably, he makes available much of his work for free on this website. You may like to check some of this out.

    2. Sorry - I forgot to add a link for the book Pather Panchali:

  11. I knew the "Apu Trilogy" was based on novels, but I would have had to look up the author.

    Everything else you wrote and linked is new to me.

  12. At the end of Kipling’s story, the narrator admits, “we had fought for Fleete’s soul with the Silver Man in that room, and had disgraced ourselves as Englishmen for ever” (11). How had they disgraced themselves? And why did he leave out much of what they did to the ‘beast’ and the Silver Man in the story?

  13. 2012 feels like such a long time ago. First question: I don't remember. Second: you couldn't print such horrible things.

  14. I guess this is as good a place as any to mention that Granta has already called it: The Best Book of 1919: The Years Between by Rudyard Kipling (

    They provide some evidence to validate their claim, for example:


    This man in his own country prayed we know not to what Powers.
    We pray them to reward him for his bravery in ours.


    I could not look on death, which being known,
    Men led me to him, blindfold and alone.

  15. I know - Robert Chandler! That was a good article. And it is a plausible choice. It is a great book-as-such. The Collected Poems does it some harm.