The Representation of Imperialism in Rudyard Kipling’s 'Plain Tales From the Hills'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 28 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Rudyard Kipling in Context
2.1. The British Empire: India
2.2. Kipling and India

3. Imperialism in Kipling‘s Works
3.1. Lispeth
3.2. Beyond the Pale
3.3. To Be Held for Reference

4. Kipling Reconsidered

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Imperialism - a topic that has been approached from countless different directions; has been analysed in various respects and has not yet lost any of its prominence. Thus, I find it even more important, although rather difficult, to explain if not justify the approach taken by this essay. It mainly narrows down to two aspects.

First of all, the ramifications of the British Empire are still a concern of today‘s world and especially of the modern United Kingdom. Issues of racial discrimination, class divisions and the concept of a multicultural Britain1 have been largely coined by the British Empire. Only recently has David Cameron criticised Britain's attempt at promoting multiculturalism as a complete failure and argued that ―the UK needed a stronger national identity to prevent people turning to all kinds of extremism (Wright, Taylor). Thus, a closer analysis of the past, particularly regarding cross-class, -race and -gender interactions might help in understanding present multi-cultural issues in the United Kingdom. To this end, it seems just plausible to draw on sources in the analysis which grant an authentic and complex picture of the period in question. Medium of choice are in this concern literary documents; not only because they outnumber every other medium and are thus rather easy to access, but also because they provide the most diverse views and contemporary insights.2

One of the most influential and well-known authors during the time of the British Empire and still today is without doubt Rudyard Kipling. Whether or not his political views can be agreed upon, he nevertheless represents a great part of English literature. He wrote numerous novels, short stories and poems and was even awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. (cf. Green 22) Along with this great success, however, came also a spate of criticism leading to an ―ambivalent attitude towards the author and his work (Gilbert: xvii). Herein lays the second and more prominent reason for writing a paper on colonialism: in the controversial portray of Rudyard Kipling. .Some authors like Henry James view him as ―the most complete man of genius [to be] ever known (159) whilst others see him as a ―jingo imperialist […] morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting (Orwell 74). The majority of Kipling‘s work has been written during the peak times of the British Empire and takes same one as thematic playground. Kipling is said to have created ―not only the best but almost the only literary picture [of Anglo-India]. (Orwell 82) and thus resemble a suitable foundation for analysis.

Hence, it shall be examined what picture of Imperialism with particular reference to Indian colony and its inhabitants as subjects to the Royal government as well as the role of the English in India, is created in Rudyard Kipling‘s work. Is it really as Fabian Schefold proposes, that Kipling‘s writing is furnished with racist and imperialist ideas, presenting Britain as racial superior to India? (cf. 59-60) Or is it as Edgar Mertner suggests, that Kipling was rather critic of the British rule in India considering it ―a huge macabre joke (145). In order to find a justifiable conclusion to those questions, a brief research of Kipling‘s literary work will be conducted. However, it goes without saying that only an excerpt of his work can serve as the corpus of this research for the limited space does not allow a more detailed analysis. To this end I have decided to focus on three different short stories by Rudyard Kipling taken from his collection Plain Tales From the Hills published in 1891.

However, before the focus of this essay shifts to the analysis of the short stories in question, a few remarks concerning the context and frame of Kipling‘s literary life are presented. Thus, the following section serves to consider the impact and influence of life in the British Empire itself as well as Kipling‘s connection to India on his works. With this background knowledge, the narratives are then interrogated about the representation of colonial rule in India followed by a summary of the findings in part 4. The final section then not only allows for an attempt in answering the questions raised, but will also apply these results on Kipling‘s later works.

2. Rudyard Kipling in Context

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 (cf. McClure 9) and thus lived during a time, when Britain was the most powerful country in the world adding over 10 million square miles and 400 million people to its empire only in the 19th century. (cf. Levine 82) Growing up as a child of British colonists in India as well as in Britain must have surely had an enormous influence on Kipling‘s life. Hence, a short account on the history of the British Empire as well as on Kipling‘s biography is expected to give a better understanding of his writings.

2.1. The British Empire: India

At the end of the 19th century large parts of the world belonged to the British Empire which continued to rule over those territories for most of the 20th century as well. While most scholars agree upon the end of the history of the British Empire, namely the last main series of decolonisation in 1960, the origins are not that distinct. (cf. Marshall 10) Envying the great success and prosperity of Spain and Portugal, gained through their discovery of new territories overseas, England as well began to found overseas colonies and trading posts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although the settlement of America in the early 17th century laid the foundation for some of Britain‘s most popular and important colonies, the British government was rather uninterested in the beginning, since those territories did not leave as much a profit as the West Indian colonies. (cf. Levine 36) It was then ―the steady growth of the settler population in North America [that made] the American colonies increasingly important […] alongside their growing role as suppliers both to the West Indies and to Britain. (ibid.) However, with the American Revolutionary War and the loss of the Thirteen Colonies in North America, Britain was weakened partly believed to never be able to recover from such a defeat. Yet, by turning the focus towards Africa and Asia, the rest of the Empire as well as Britain‘s oversee trade not only remained intact but continued to grow.

In the period from 1783 to 1870 there can be no doubt of Britain‘s ambitions, or, to be more exact, of many British people‘s ambitions. Britain was a restless society. British people were leaving the British Isles, seeking commercial advantages and propagating their values throughout the world. (Marshall 34)

Even though, it is only from this point onwards that India becomes of larger interest to Britain, trading in Asia began already as early as the 17th century. However, it was not until the mid of 18th century and the decline of the powerful Moguls that the East India Company became the dominating power in India continuing the expansion of the British Empire into Asia. (cf. Levine 62) Not only did the company hold the trade monopoly in Asia conducting a very successful business, but it was also granted military and political freedom of rights.

The first half of the 19th century was a time of considerable expansion in British India. Annexations and a series of military skirmishes all required considerable military force, and the military in India was the largest in Asia […]. The EIC was increasingly acting like a government imposing British values and British definitions, while incorporating more and more territory. (Levine 76)

For reasons of ―political intrigue, charges of corruption, expensive military campaigns and a market crash (Levine 67) the company was then at first restricted in its freedom and regulated by the British government and eventually dissolved. It was consequently replaced by direct British rule in person of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, in 1858 marking the start of the British Raj. (cf. Levine 78-79)

Even though Britain emerged rather victorious from the World Wars, every part of the Empire suffered from the ramifications of the conflict. Not only did England remain almost bankrupt, but at the same time anti-colonial movements began to increase. (cf. Levine 193-194) Weakened as it was, Britain adopted a ―policy of peaceful disengagement from its colonies (ibid.) resulting in an almost 100% decrease of the number of people under British rule outside the UK until 1965. Awarding independence to Rhodesia, the New Hebrides and Belize in 1980/81 indicated that the process of decolonisation that was initiated after the Second World War was mainly complete. (cf. Levine 205) The handover ceremony of Hong Kong in 1997 then marked for many the final end of the Empire.

2.2. Kipling and India

In his essay on Rudyard Kipling, Clemens Semmler states that whatever negative imperialist ideas are transported by Kipling‘s works, they should be interpreted in the context of his life and time. (cf. 72) He argues that the way colonialism was presented to Kipling, ―it seems something for which it was worthwhile to stand for in our schoolboy ranks as we did, and raise our hands in salute (ibid.). Whether or not one agrees with Semmler in that point, it should be recognized that Kipling is a child of the Empire and experienced colonial life first hand. Thus, many of his views, opinions and portrays of the Empire result from individual experience rather than theoretical knowledge and hearsay.

Being born in India to Anglo-Indian3 parents and into an intellectual, successful middle- class background, Kipling was sent to England at the age of six in order to receive an English education. The first years he spent in England were under the custody of a grim and demanding lady and are said to have left a severe impression on Kipling, assuming that he ―was so injured psychologically at this time that he never recovered normal balance (Varley 126) He later attended the public school Westward Ho!, where he gained first journalistic experience by taking on the editorship of the school‘s newspaper and by publishing several articles, stories and poems. The school was run by retired military officers explaining why most of the pupils at Westward Ho! had military backgrounds as well. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that Kipling developed a strong patriotic attitude already early in his life as the following excerpt shows: ―And all are bred to do Your will // By land and sea - wherever flies // The Flag, to fight and follow still // And work Your Empire‘s destinies (Kipling 1882 in Varley 127).

At the age of 17 Kipling returned to India taking up employment as a journalist for the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette. This period of time was crucial for Kipling‘s career as a writer and he was taught how to report and write as well as trim his own work. (ibid.) During his time in Lahore, he wrote large parts of what would later be published as his short story collection Plain Tales from the Hills. By the age of only 30 Kipling had published numerous short stories among them The Man Who Would Be King (1888) and Baa Baa, Black Sheep (1888) as well as his famous novel The Jungle Book (1894).

After spending some time travelling through India and working for a different newspaper in Allahabad, Kipling left India in 1889. A time of constant resettlement followed with Kipling travelling to the United States, England, Canada, and also to South Africa, where he met Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes, English politician and one of the strongest supporters of Imperialism, was convinced that Englishmen have to free the world from savagery and spread the English race.

I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. (243-244) Not only made Kipling acquaintance with Rhodes, but he also greatly admired his politics. Eventually Rhodes became of great influence to Kipling thereby forming his ideas on the future of the Empire. Moreover, the Anglo-Indian community Kipling was born into - often described as the ―service elite of the Indian empire - a group composed largely of civilian and military officers of the Raj (McClure 9) also shared these particular views on the typology of races. It was widely suggested that since races were ―biologically and culturally different […] some were better than others (Biddis 1979 in McBratney 280). Again it is indicated that Kipling‘s political views are rather a result of the world surrounding him than the product of independent well-elaborated convictions. It was then only a year after Kipling had met Cecil Rhodes, that his poem A White Men’s Burden (1899) was published. Alongside with Rhodes, it sees the civilization of native inhabitants as a task - a burden - imposed on the British.. In connection to his poem, Kipling later told a friend that he felt the white man‘s burden was laid on him to advocate in every way the bringing of the British peoples under an Empire council: when the Australians grew up and the young Africans forgot to be Dutch, there would be such an Empire as the world never saw. (Semmler 74)

There can be no doubt that this statement favours the stabilization if not expansion of the Empire and certainly the spreading of British values and definitions. Yet, along with this enthusiasm for the expansion of the British Empire, Kipling has always felt great love for India and found ideals and values in Indian life he could admire. (cf. Semmler 77) Especially in his autobiography Something of Myself (1937), it becomes apparent how greatly he enjoyed his time in India.

My month‘s leave at Simla, or whatever Hill Station my people went to, was pure joy— every golden hour counted. It began in heat and discomfort, by rail and road. It ended in the cool evening, with a wood fire in one‘s bedroom, and next morn—thirty more of them ahead!—the early cup of tea, the Mother who brought it in, and the long talks of us all together again. One had leisure to work, too, at whatever play-work was in one‘s head, and that was usually full. (57)

This mixture of English patriotism and admiration for the Indian subcontinent largely resembles the antagonism dominant in Kipling‘s (literary) life, which John McBratney aptly describes as a ―a private quest for a secure sense of citizenship [that] reflected a larger, public concern in turn-of-the-century Britain with the formation of an imperial culture (279).

After reaching his peak of popularity at the beginning of the 21st century, he lost of fame and esteem after the First World War: even though he would continue to write almost until his death in 1936, the success would not uphold. (cf. McClure 28)

In the end, I consider it reasonable and essential to bear in my mind, the context of Kipling‘s upbringing; coined by hegemony, orders and submission. I think it is important to understand, as Semmler points out, that ―after all the Empire was not something he invented to steady his nerves, but an eleven million square mile reality (72). Against this background it will now be examined how this reality is perceived in Plain Tales From the Hills.

3. Imperialism in Kipling‘s Work

As mentioned before, Kipling gathered first experiences as an author already in high school and started a career as a professional writer and publisher after his return to India at the age of only 17. Ever since Kipling was confronted with the difficulties of writing about India while keeping the so called ―proper distance (McClure 30). Some scholars argue that it is because of this fine line between well observed journalistic works on the one hand and showing solidarity with his community on the other hand that certain parts of his early work ―seem to be attempting a sympathetic identification with the Indian people and thereby to be developing a criticism of imperial rule (McClure 31). Clearly opposing the widely spread opinion of Kipling as a supporter of, this thesis shall be taken as the initial position for the following analysis of those very stories.

The short stories Lispeth, Beyond the Pale and To Be Held for Reference were along with 37 other narratives published in the collective work Plain Tales from the Hills4 in 1888. Speaking about this collection, Oscar Wilde once said, that reading the book ―one feels as if one were seated under a palm-tree reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity and he goes on saying ―the mere lack of style in the story-teller gives an odd journalistic realism to what he tells us (7). Both quotes provide an idea of the content and style of PTH: The tales are rather short and simple telling about everyday life in India and particularly in the Hills, where Anglo-Indians like Kipling spent their recreational time.


1 In the following the terms Britain, Great Britain and the United Kingdom as well as the abbreviation UK are used synonymously and refer all to the United Kingdom.

2 At this point it shall be noted that the focus of this essay is on the English reception and presentation of the British Empire. Thus, literary achievements by native inhabitants of the colonies do not serve as an appropriate source for this research.

3 This paper uses the term Anglo-Indian to refer to British people who have been living in India as well as their descendents regardless whether they were born in India or not. For a more specific distinction see D‘Cruz 2003, 105-106.

4 In the following abbreviated as PTH


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Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – Institut für Fremdsprachliche Philologien
representation imperialism rudyard kipling’s plain tales from hills empire Britain India colonialism postcolonialism




Title: The Representation of Imperialism in Rudyard Kipling’s 'Plain Tales From the Hills'