The Imperial Message in Rudyard Kipling’s Novel "Kim"

Term Paper 2010 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Western attitude toward colonial India

3. West versus East
3.1. Discourse of Orientalism
3.2. Ideas of British predominance

4. The dream of united colonialism and imperialism

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Take up the White man’s burden -

Send forth the best ye breed -

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;
The White Man ’s Burden (1899)

Imperialism as a historical fact has left quite contradictory traces in the memories of thousands of people. For many of them Empire was the key to glory and wealth that brought Britain many significant benefits and positively changed the economic landscape of the Indian subcontinent as well. It “had developed the largest railway system in Asia …, restored old irrigation systems and developed new ones. There were hydroelectric dams, harbourworks and bridges. There was also a considerable development of system of higher education …. [F]amines were diminished and agriculture tended to be commercialised.”[1] Imperialism had also its passionate critics for whom Empire was the scandal that “produced ethnic violence, religious exclusion, political weakness, civilizational embarrassment, and national extremism.”[2] For Rudyard Kipling Empire was a philosophy that assumed the superiority of British civilization and therefore its moral responsibility to bring law and enlightenment to “sullen peoples” of the world. Kipling is generally recognized as the apostle of Empire, “a spokesman for his age, with its sense of imperial destiny, [the] age is one about which many Britons ... now feel an exaggerated sense of guilt.”[3] The Imperial Idea is seen by many literary critics as the inspiration for the most of his writings. His novel Kim, which appeared at a time historically recognized as “the turning point in Britain’s imperial connections, the start of England’s self-perception as ‘the weary Titan’”[4], is an excellent example of a pro-imperialist work which celebrates the authority and benevolence of British rule in India. There is plenty of evidence that supports the thesis of Kipling’s pro-imperialist view. For its picaresque dimension, aesthetic, pedagogical, and moral values[5] Kim cannot be reduced to a piece of pro-imperialist propaganda, but the imperial message is one of its central themes. This research paper seeks to complement this thesis by sketching the different aspects according to which Kim can be regarded as a novel that helps endorse British imperialism. Based on the close reading of the novel this study will focus on the selected examples of the racial hierarchy, beginning with the explorations of the Western attitude toward colonial India, before proceeding to examine the evidences of the Orientalist discourse and the examples of the stereotypical and biased portrayals of Indian characters as juxtaposed to British characters. Subsequently, the positive influence of imperial rule on India’s development and the overwhelming support for the British government that all characters in the novel share will illustrate the British fantasy of idealized colonialism and imperialism.

2. Western attitude toward colonial India

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim can be interpreted as a project that exemplifies the relations between Britain and India within the "hegemonic colonial discourse"[6]. The novel displays the absolute division between the white and the non-white that existed during the British Raj in India. For Kipling, who believed that his countrymen, “ahead of all others, have been collectively placed by the will of the Almighty behind the greatest of his ploughs”[7], it was necessary to stress the superiority of the white men over the natives. The assumption of European hegemony and the official Western attitude toward colonial India are effectively conveyed through different images and symbols, which set the tone of the novel.

Right in the very beginning of the novel the narrator introduces the eponymous hero, the thirteen-year-old Kim, as sitting “in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah”[8], a symbol of British authority, for the British were the last who captured the gun as a symbol of its conquest of the Punjab. The opening lines state the existing imperial roles, the conqueror and the conquered, as well as underline the British superiority: “Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot. There was some justification for Kim ... since the English held Punjab and Kim was English”[9]. Kim’s behaviour in the “king-of-the-castle” game with his friends Abdullah and Chota Lai, in which he feels himself as a winner in advance because “’All Mussalmans fell off Zam-Zammah long ago!’” and “’The Hindus fell off Zam-Zammah too’”[10], is the next evidence of his assumed predominance over other religions and races. Kim’s action of kicking his Indian friends off of the trunnions is rationalized and “justified” by the colour of his skin. Further, the readers learn that Kim is sitting opposite the anthropological museum of Lahore, which was “given up to Indian arts and manufactures, and anybody who sought wisdom could ask the curator to explain.”[11] One striking point drawing attention is that the “Keeper of the Wonder House” turns out to be an Englishman as well. So, the opening scene stresses the unequal status of both nations by presenting Kim in control of the emblem of British authority over the Indians, the gun, and the English curator in control of the place of knowledge, the native museum.

Further on, it becomes clear that the characters of the museum curator and the lama are shown to be symbolic representations of the West and the East respectively. The lama acknowledges the expert knowledge of the Englishman and turns to him for the information about the River of the Arrow, an aim of his holy quest. The nameless figure of the museum curator, though unable to help the lama, stands for the colonial officialdom, which is respectful for the profound knowledge. And the lama is shown to represent the East, which believes in this knowledge of the British. The mysterious and ignorant East is to be taken under the British wing, which is illustrated in the scene where the curator presents the lama with his spectacles, pencils and a white note-book[12], the symbols of civilization and knowledge, “consolidating the justness and legitimacy of British benevolent sway.”[13]

This opposition between the gun and the museum, Kim and his native friends, the English museum curator and the lama is continuously repeated throughout the novel in other oppositions between Britain and India. One of them is the flag of the Irish regiment “the Red Bull on a Green Field”, which stands for “the British redcoats charging through the fertile ‘green field’ of India”[14], and suggests the energy and vitality of British power and passiveness of India, and implies “conquest and war against passive failures.”[15] Another symbolic object of British assumed superiority is the train, which Kim and the lama travel by in the beginning of the journey. The superstitious and ignorant holy man, who is even unable to buy the ticket on his own, calls it “the work of devils”[16]. His fears are lulled by the Sikh craftsman, who assures the lama, that the train “is the work of the Government”[17], a practical gift, which implies the positive British influence on the development of India. Thus, the Indians, as they are presented in the novel, are worlds removed from the advantages and virtues of the European civilization and any sign of technological progress in the underdeveloped country is Britain’s reward.


[1] "British India: The Jewel in the Crown."Chronicle of the World (London: Longman, 1989) 1046-1047, at 1046.

[2] Dirks, Nicholas B. The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2006) 28.

[3] Rutherford, Andrew. “General Preface”. Kim, by Rudyard Kipling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) vii-xi, at vii.

[4] Sullivan, Zohreh T. Narr atives of empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 147.

[5] These are not going to be discussed in this research paper, for it would exceed the limits of the work.

[6] Breckenridge, Carol A. and Peter van der Veer. “Orientalism and Postcolonial Predicament”. Orientalism and the postcolonial predicament: perspectives on South Asia, ed. Carol A. Breckenridge, Peter van der Veer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993) 1-19, at 9.

[7] Sandison, Alan. „Kipling: the Artist and the Empire.” Kipling’s Mind and Art, ed. Andrew Rutherford (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964) 146-167, at 146.

[8] Kipling, Rudyard. Kim (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) 1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. 4.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kipling 12.

[13] Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) 139.

[14] Sullivan 149.

[15] Ibid. 154.

[16] Kipling 26.

[17] Ibid. 27.


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Kipling Kim Imperialism Colonialism Postcolonial Studies colonial India India Orientalism Britisch Empire racial hierarchy Imperial Britain



Title: The Imperial Message in Rudyard Kipling’s Novel "Kim"