A Review of Kipling’s Kim: Imperialism, Individualism, and the “Great Game” Essay

Espionage, on the surface, exhibits adventure and intrigue, but real espionage in colonial history exposes the efforts of different Empires in controlling the fates of their colonies. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim resonates with the familiar themes of mystery and suspense that most espionage and detective novels have. Kipling, however, has chosen a setting for his novel that comments on the historical conditions of India as a British colony. His novel takes a semblance of an autobiographical account, because like Kim, he grew up as an Anglo-Indian. Unlike Kim who is an orphan, however, Kipling had a father, the museum curator of the Museum of Indian Arts and Crafts in Lahore. Still, Kim is Kipling for both had forayed into that side of India that whites frequently do not explore: its “opium dens, brothels, and backstreets” (Reid and Washbrook 14). These local spaces illustrated India’s culture in many ways that merely living in white communities could not offer. Kim depicts Kim’s hardships in finding and forming his identity, where in the process, he realizes that imperialism and local identities have its conflicts and unions, and that ultimately, only he could decide his destiny.

Kim represents the intersection between the Indian and the British, where because he is straddling both worlds, he becomes none. His skin is blackened enough that he is not recognizable as a white boy. At the same time, he knows the people of his community, not just what they do and what they are called, but also their beliefs and practices, and sometimes, even their secrets. Mehta underscores in his article, “Aspects of the Indian Notions of Spirituality in Kipling’s Kim (Exploring Buddhism),” that Kipling shows a “great zeal and quest for the Indian concept of spirituality” (44). Kim finds himself magnetized to the spirituality of the lama and his spiritual quest. In “Kipling, Kim and Imperialism,” Reid and Washbrook underscore that Kipling appreciates the local culture and society of India. It is his home, to some extent, and his eyes see the rich culture of India in the same way that Kim does. Nevertheless, despite the Indianness of the boy, the locals know that Kim is not one of them. He may look like a local, but they call him “Little Friend of all the World” (Kipling Ch. 1). He is a friend because he is an outsider. Kim is Irish, so this makes him white. As someone who is not white and not Indian, Kim does not belong to any particular group. He needs to find his identity, and so the restlessness in his spirit cannot be contained. When he asks for money from Mahbub Ali, he stresses his need for a new adventure: “[The Tibetan monk] is quite mad, and I am tired of Lahore city. I wish new air and water” (Kipling Ch.1). This statement reveals that though the monk is looking for something so mystical that it verges on the fantastical, Kim cannot ignore the need to find himself too. If the lama has a goal in life, he wants to find something worth looking for also, which is his identity. He needs new air and water, which signifies he wants to find the relevance of living. Without air and water, the living shall die. Without an identity, the living shall die inside.

The novel is about an individual who wants to find his own identity, so that he can fulfill his destiny, and along the way, a tug-of-war takes place among conflicting potential sources of identity. Several factors impact people’s identity, such as family, culture, religion, politics, social class, gender, age, and many others. The same goes for Kim, who experiences his “becoming” through his interactions with other people. Mahony explains how hard it must be for Kim to find himself amidst his numerous teachers in life: “His search is complicated by the different, seemingly contradictory, directions that are pointed out to him by the individuals he meets” (2). Kim does not follow everyone. Indeed, something inside him chooses the roads that he must follow, but he cannot decide immediately who he wants to be. On the one hand, the lama offers spiritual enlightenment. The River of Arrows cleanses people’s sins and impurities. Kim is attracted to the spiritual pilgrimage that may shed light on who he is. On the other hand, Kim is fascinated with the British intelligence system. Mahbub Ali is C25 IB, a British spy. He indoctrinates young Kim into the Great Game. The Great Game refers to the struggles between the Russian and British Empires, as they aimed to control Central Asia through their web of espionage and deceit. It is a game of spying and counterintelligence for whoever leads or wants to lead in Central Asia. In other words, it represents the game of Imperialism’s various clashing forces. These forces shape Kim’s choices for his identity. Apparently, though the novel ends with his successful pilgrimage with the lama, the novel suggests that he remains a British spy too. Thus, instead of rejecting one aspect for another, he embraces both, including the dichotomies and conflicts they contained.

The novel has several meanings that may be based on how people read and understand the text, particularly the relationships embedded in it, particularly dual identities and patriotism, and Imperialism and nationalism. Kipling is described as ambivalent to the colonial discourse, although he is generally perceived as a staunch supporter of British Imperialism. Hubel, in her article “In Search of the British Indian in British India: White Orphans, Kipling’s Kim, and Class in Colonial India,” describes the novel as an “Orientalist approach to racial difference” (233). Said defined orientalism as the “will” to change what is “manifestly different” (qtd. in Hubel 234). Kim, despite being nativized through his local upbringing, embodies the superior thinking of a white man. He is bored of Lahore because he is tired of its corruption, inconsistencies, and poverty. Kim, nevertheless, expresses Imperialism from the Indian side. Abdul R. JanMohamed asserts that Kim possesses “a positive, detailed, and nonstereotypic portrait of the colonized that is unique in colonialist literature,” but he perceives “the problem of racial difference” that is hidden under Kipling’s text (98 qtd. in Christensen 10). Kim justifies the need for British ruling because the Indians, he feels, needed to be ruled upon. This reflects the essentialist ideas of Kipling, of which he was known of. This makes Kim an unconventional patriot, who defies the demands of the locals for independence. Underlying the plot is the simmering sheer of nationalism. The Indians may not be actively engaging in war, not yet. But their everyday complaints of the controls in their lives depict the desire for true autonomy.

The novel explores Kipling’s beliefs in human nature, where people have an intense desire to know and to control as part of human identity. In “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Misrecognition, Pleasure, and White Identity in Kipling’s Kim,” Christensen argues that Kipling projects a colonial identity with a performative aspect: “the limitations of essentialist notions of identity are projected onto racial others, while the freedom of self-creation derived from a performative notion of identity becomes the exclusive privilege of whites” (10). Kim wants to know who he is. If it means controlling others through his intelligence-gathering efforts, then it is part of who he is. Furthermore, human nature seeks control, including changing the other for the purposes of social control. Hubel uses the text of Said to study Orientalism in Kim. Said argues that the novel “enshrines a polarity between the Occident and the Orient” and between the white and the brown:

The division between white and non-white, in India and elsewhere, was absolute, 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. 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 (Culture 134-5 qtd. in Hubel 234).

Said stresses that Kipling does not bother to criticize the roots and consequences of imperialism. Kim does not judge imperialism as evil too because he knows the meaning and function of control. The British uses the Great Game to ensure its control over its colonies. Kim is not someone who questions the grand narrative of Imperialism. Instead, he is an Orientalist who accepts the human need for domination. Moreover, another side is knowing is the spiritual need for enlightenment. Wollen emphasizes in “Kim: The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same” that Kim wants to find his “salvation” too (158). He provides a spiritual aspect of Kim’s identity, although salvation might also be entirely non-spiritual for Kim. It might just be that Kim wants to find peace in himself, which he cannot achieve as an invisible white man in an Indian society. Still, Wollen might also be right. Kim wants spiritual peace, something that his father has not attained because he died with drugs and alcohol abuse. Connecting with a Transcendental being can help Kim make sense of his existence, and even why his parents died the way they did- poor and powerless in their society.

The novel has another side, the one that explores the concept of an expert intelligence officer, a spy, where he is someone who can use deceit and treachery to attain his goals. Kim exemplifies the requisites of being a good spy because he has learned to interact with people and to profile them. Profiling will help differentiate the enemies from the non-enemies. It also collects critical details about people and their lives. Kim is an acute observer and his observation and memory skills are critical to his mission. Taylor explores the importance of training the eye for espionage work in “Kipling’s Imperial Aestheticism: Epistemologies of Art and Empire in Kim.” Lurgan educates Kim through the “jewel game,” which means he must identify the smallest details of what is in a pile of jewels and “what might be called dressing up.” For Taylor, these skills “places Kim in a position akin to that of the detective who is able to observe that which is invisible to the untrained eye, to the aesthete’s honed aesthetic sense, or, in a different vein, to the dandy’s meticulousness in dress” (60-61). Kim knows the aesthetics of being a spy, so he can think and act like one. The “forbidden” knowledge that spies get from their mission becomes the familiar and the critical to an excellent spy (Taylor 62). Kim is a successful spy because he attains his mission of collecting the documents and handing it to the British intelligence system. In “Hero’s Success Distinguishes ‘Kim’ from Other Novels,” Paul differentiates Kim from other spies because he survives his clandestine operation and completes his mission. Furthermore, even at the cost of his life, Kim shows allegiance to the British crown. He keeps the documents safe and fiercely guards his secrets. Kim does not disappoint his handlers at all; he has the abilities of a true spy.

The novel is a struggle for identity, an individuality that is set to be expressed in context of imperialism and the world of spies. Kim sees from the eyes of a white Indian. He remains white, first and foremost, and an Indian thereafter. He works for the British because he reflects what Kipling believes in, that British Imperialism is justified and must be protected from Russian incursion. Kim represents the quest for an individuality, which is not an entirely individualistic journey, but one which participates in the making of his culture and society. In this process, he reveals an Orientialist approach to Imperialism and Indian society. The critics might judge Kim, in a more direct way, Kipling, for presenting a naïve picture of India, but Kim provides a strong picture of what happens to white people who go native- they can become spies and protect their community and its people in the ways they best can.

Works Cited

Christensen, Tim. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Misrecognition, Pleasure, and White Identity in Kipling’s Kim.” College Literature 39.2 (2012): 9-30. Print.

Hubel, Teresa. “In Search of the British Indian in British India: White Orphans, Kipling’s Kim, and Class in Colonial India.” Modern Asian Studies 38.1 (2004): 227-251. Print.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. Web. 30 Sept. 30. 2012.

Mahony, Mary. Kim. Masterplots, Fourth Edition (Nov. 2010): 1-4. Literary Reference Center. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Mehta, Naveen K. “Aspects of the Indian Notions of Spirituality in Kipling’s Kim (Exploring Buddhism).” Kipling Journal 83.334 (2009): 43-47. Literary Reference Center. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.

Paul, Angus. “Hero’s Success Distinguishes ‘Kim’ from Other Novels.” Chronicle of Higher Education 34.26 (16 Dec. 1985): A5-A6. Print.

Reid, Fred, and David Washbrook. “Kipling, Kim and Imperialism.” History Today 32.8 (1982): 14-20. Print.

Taylor, Jesse Oak. “Kipling’s Imperial Aestheticism: Epistemologies of Art and Empire in Kim.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 52.1 (2009): 49-69. Print.

Wollen, Peter. “Kim: The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same.” Emergences: Journal for the Study of Media & Composite Cultures 12.1 (2002): 157-170. Print.

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A Review of Kipling’s Kim: Imperialism, Individualism, and the “Great Game”. (October 7, 2020).
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