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Looking At Imperial Identity In Rudyard Kipling English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2029 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The work of Edward Said has long been fuel for much critical debate; In Orientalism, Said argues that the whole notion of the ‘Orient’ is a body of culture, academic and political work that tries to identify the East as ‘them’ in terms that have evolved through Western Imperialism. In Orientalism, Said quotes Rudyard Kipling’s work as exemplifying colonial attitudes to Oriental peoples. (REF) The aim of this essay is to explore the critical material written about the work of Kipling, in particular Kim and The Jungle Books. By using the work of Said as a foundation and starting point to critique Kipling’s work, I plan to explore how Kipling presents his young heroes, Kim and Mowgli.

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According to Said’s analysis, there are two factors that must be kept in mind when interpreting Kim. One being that, its author was writing not just from the dominating viewpoint of a white man in a colonial possession but from the perspective of a colossal colonial system whose ‘economy, functioning, and history had acquired the status of a virtual fact of nature.’ (162) Kipling assumes an essentially uncontested empire of colonies made up of ‘inferior humans’. The division between white and non-white was absolute in India and other colonial areas, and is alluded to throughout Kim as well as the rest of Kipling’s work: ‘a Sahib is a Sahib and no amount of friendship or camaraderie can change the rudiments of racial difference.’ (162) According to Said, Kipling would no more have questioned that difference and the right of the white European to rule than he would have argued with the Himalayas. (163)

Similar to Said, S. P. Mohanty in his essay, Kipling’s Children and the Colour Line, explores this division between the white and non-white. Mohanty argues that Kim has to be read in terms of racial positions and the imperial project. In particular he focuses on issues of spying, scouting, observing and managing: ‘a distinctly political project shaping racial meanings, identities and possibilities.’ He suggests that Kim is a white hero who can discard his colour as he wishes:

‘He lives and sleeps and east in the open social world of colonial India against a backdrop of an inter-Imperial war between Britain and Russia, but his identity is never something that ties him down.’ (241)

Kim is of white heritage, yet grew up as a street urchin in Lahore, in the care of a half caste Indian woman. Mohanty argues that it is when we begin to take Kim’s cultural identity seriously as the character can become real and the reader begins to pay attention to ‘the narrative’s elusive and mystifying cultural vision and wonder about the sources of its motivation.’ (242) The critic explains that once we being to question Kim’s education, direct parallels can be drawn to Kim’s ‘ancestor’, Mowgli. Both Kim and Mowgli learn to adapt to strange surroundings and attain a knowledge that enables them to survive their harsh worlds. (242) Mowgli is adopted by the wolves and befriended by the rest of the jungle animals, yet still holds a level of superiority. However in an example that Mohanty gives, taken from the opening of The King’s Ankus, Mowgli and Kaa the python are playing: ‘the fantasy is here not so much of pure freedom as of involvement without any real implication. Kaa could crush Mowgli with the slightest slip; and what Mowgli plays with, in fact, is precisely this.’ Their inequality reduces to a game. From the beginning of the story, Kaa acknowledges the young human as the Master of the Jungle, and brings the boy all the news that he hears. (243) It is suggested by Mohanty that Mowgli like Kim reveals the capacity to not only inhabit the jungle through a ‘wishful allegorical fantasy, but also to chart and track it as well’ – both of them have the ability to read the world around them and often better than the natives. The native boys Kim is compared with somehow lack the facility that make reading possible, remarks the critic. Another example he gives of this inequality is when Lurgan Sahib teaches Kim and the Indian boy how to observes people’s faces and reactions, to interpret their behaviour and identify motive, Kim seems to learn it quickly, whilst the native boy is left ‘mysteriously handicapped’ (244)

The second factor is that Said recognises is that Kipling was a historical being as well an author; Kim was written at a specific moment in his career, and at a time when the relationship between the British and Indian people was changing.

When we read it today, Kipling’s Kim can touch many of these issues. Does Kipling portray the Indians as inferior, or as somehow equal but different? Obviously, an Indian reader will give an answer that focuses on some factors more than others (for example, Kipling’s stereotypical views – some would call them racialist – on the Oriental character) whereas English and American readers will stress his affection for Indian life on the Grand Trunk Road.

Sandra Kemp in her 1988 study entitled Kipling’s Hidden Narratives, tries to understand and link the relationship between the author’s psychology and the author’s work. She notes that Kipling was strongly opposed to Indian Nationalism (2) and used his public figure as a writer to draw attention to politics and the political climate in India. Like Said recognises, India was entering a post-Muntiny state and both critics propound the influence of this on Kipling. (2) Baa Baa, Black Sheep, Kipling’s semi-autobiographical account of childhood, he reveals recurrent preoccupations as the story dramatizes the difference between the East and West. Throughout his writings Kipling seems to be searching for a structure of belief that would recognise the reality of both love and hate, and the reality of their co-existence.

Kemp encapsulates the search for identity within Kim, stating that this structures the action: ‘Who is Kim-Kim-Kim?’ Quoting this extract from Kim again is Zorah T. Sullivan, who notes that this inner quest and search for an identity suggest possible self-discovery.

Sullivan examines Kim and Mowgli’s mutual ‘[division] between their desire to be loved and their need to control and be feared.’ (i) Quoting from The Second Jungle Book ‘all the Jungle was his friend, and just a little afraid of him’ (130). This coincides with Mohanty’s point regarding Kaa and Mowlgi’s play fighting.

Sullivan identifies that the India Kipling created helped to construct a ‘mythology of imperialism’ by reflecting both the real and the imaginary relationship between the British and their Indian subjects. (8) By acknowledging the work of Kemp, Sullivan expands upon how Kemp illuminates Foucault’s and Said’s earlier work on the problems of representing Others: ‘knowledge of others reflects the power of the knowing coloniser who represents natives because they cannot represent themselves.’ (9) Sullivan’s work counters Kipling’s reputation as ‘bard of empire’ whose voice represents unproblematically and transparently the discourse of imperialism.

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Peter Havholm suggests that Said’s demonstration of the Orientalism assumed by the implied authors of important English and French novels has set the parameters for much other recent discussion about Kipling’s fiction. (2008, 5) According to him, fellow critics such as Sullivan and Moore-Gilbert line up against Said’s conclusions; ‘They read ambivalence, anxiety, and a range of complexities in the discourse that may be abstracted form Kipling’s stories.’ (5) Although Said’s work added colonial discourse analysis to the art and life of Kipling, this analysis focuses more on the rhetoric of Kipling’s fiction than its form. However Havholm observes that the discussion Said started is both productive and fascinating. (4)

Bart Moore-Gilbert is another critic who is synonymous with Kipling. In his 1986 study Kipling and Orientalism, Moore-Gilbert seeks to explore Kipling’s relationship to the characteristic discourses of Anglo-Indian culture, principally the literary and the political in the 19th Century, as well as providing a critique on Said’s Orientalism. Edward Said believes that every form of orientalism is based on simplistic stereotypes that help justify the West’s imperialistic goal of restructuring and dominating oriental cultures. Moore-Gilbert suggests that Said’s writing is inadequate and generalises the British relationship to India and Kipling’s outlook in his Anglo-Indian writings.

Moore-Gilbert acknowledges Said’s position. Despite his sympathy for Indian ways, as aforementioned, Kipling feared native rule and was in full support of the British Raj. Moore-Gilbert treats this as a regrettable short-coming, proving that Kipling was a prisoner of his cultural values and proposes that Anglo-Indians and Kipling were not always bigoted imperialists as Said may suggest. Through Moore-Gilbert’s work, a reassessment of Said’s hypothesis of Kiping is formed.

John McBratney’s article Imperial Subjects, Imperial Space argues that the ordering element of Kipling’s vision of empire is the ‘native-born’ Westerner who inhabits his fictions so insistently. Surrounding the native born is ‘felicitous space’ or a narrative area in which arising social constraints are suspended and where one can engage in a free experiment of personal identity and social role: ‘Given the tension between juvenile freedom and imperial duty, what finally is the nature of Mowgli’s identity?’ (279) Similar to some of the other critics discussed in this essay, McBratney too draws upon Kipling’s own identity, and his ‘ability to float between the Anglo-Indian and Indian societies, without religious or social sanctum’ (282) just like Kim and Mowgli. The special abilities that allow the native-born to play these roles derive from his identity as neither exclusively British nor simply “native.” This study also provides the most thorough analysis of that figure’s hybrid, “casteless” selfhood in relation to shifting attitudes toward racial identity during Britain’s “New Imperialism.” illuminates both the complexities of subject construction in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods and the struggles today over identity formation in the postcolonial world. Moore-Gilbert has critiqued the work of McBratney, regearding it as a ‘fine critical text’ (2000, 100). The focus of the ‘native born’ which features heavily within McBratney’s article leads to Moore-Gilbert praising him for highlighting that Mowgli is in fact Indian born and there a native himself. However studies from Mohanty and Sullivan highlight that regardless of whether Mowgli is Indian, the jungle become an allegorical platform and he is still an outsider in a strange world.

From the critical material explored here, the issue of identity in Kim and The Jungle Books can be seen to be a highly debated topic, of which I have only scraped the surface, with the reoccurring issues of race and cultural factors being behind and self-confusion. Kemp, as many of the other critics concur, uses Kipling’s self-reflexivity of his stories, and his stories interrogate the ‘other-self’ of his childhood (1) Kipling’s own confusion of racial and cultural identity is reflected within his writing, not only in Kim and The Jungle Books, but across all of his Indian fiction. This is something that maybe needs to be taken into consideration, as Moore-Gilbert does, when assessing the work of Kipling, using Said as critical foundation.


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