«Who Is Kim?» Determining Identity in Rudyard Kipling’s "Kim"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2011 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Importance of Identity in Kipling’s Kim

2. Kim’s Identities in Rudyard Kipling’s Novel
2.1 Representation of Identity in Kim 2
2.2 Development of Kim’s Identity throughout the Novel
2.3 Kim’s ‘Final’ Identity and Kipling’s Intention

3. Conclusion: Identity as an Individual Aspect of Personality Works Cited List

1. Introduction: Importance of Identity in Kipling’s Kim

Identity is a term everyone knows, everyone frequently uses. However, when you start thinking about the identity of another person, the first problems arise. What is identity? What characteristics give information about someone’s identity? Origin? Language? Passport or, as the name beautifully displays, identity cards? This question comes up several times while reading Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. Written in the post-colonial era, the story is set in British India and describes the development of an Irish orphan from the Indian bazaar and his identity quest. Over and over again in the novel, Kim asks “Who is Kim - Kim - Kim?” (Kipling 248)1 and finally, he concludes “I am Kim. I am Kim.” (374). Although Kim’s answer to what he is does not really provide any convincing solutions to the general question of identity, it might be the only possible response a human being can give. Is it actually possible to determine a particular identity? This question is of particular importance in India of the late 19th century since there appears to be an extreme clash of cultures as can be seen the novel.

Thus, also the reader starts asking himself who Kim is and what role identity plays in life. The question Kim is asking himself several times during the novel is never fully answered. Although there are many analyses and different opinions among literary specialists concerning Kim’s identity towards the end of the novel, it is still mere interpretation. In this paper, I am going to analyse the thesis that identity as it is represented in Kim is individual and not fixed so that it cannot be fully determined at all. Therefore, it is necessary to have a closer look at Kim’s multiple identities. First of all, I am going to emphasize the general representation of identity and its importance with regard to Kipling’s novel Kim. Afterwards, it will be necessary to specialize on Kim and follow the development and the changing of his identity from the beginning of the story over his stay in St. Xavier’s until his new profession as a spy in the Great Game. Furthermore, I will analyse Kim’s ‘final’ identity at the end of the novel and then find out what Kipling’s intention concerning Kim’s complex identity problem might be. The results of this analysis will then be evaluated in the conclusion.

2. Kim’s Identities in Rudyard Kipling’s Novel

2.1 Representation of Identity in Kim

Identity plays a crucial role throughout the novel Kim. So, why is identity necessary? On the one hand, identity serves to recognize oneself or to be recognized by others. When Kim sees the lama in front of the Lahore museum for the first time, he asks “Who is that?” (11) and continues: “he is no man of India that I have ever seen” (12). Only when Kim gets to know his identity, he is able to refer to him as the ‘Holy One.’ It is also significant for Kim’s future that the Irish regiment recognizes him to be “O’Hara’s boy, sure enough” (119). However, identity is not only used for recognition but for differentiation as well. Kipling very often juxtaposes different cultures, particularly European and Asian people, in order to establish an unquestioned hierarchy. Already a young orphan like Kim is affected by these power relations. He requests the power he is entitled to since “the English held the Punjab and Kim was English”2 (7). Briefly afterwards he states that “[a]ll Mussulmans fell off Zam-Zammah long ago! [...] The Hindus fell of [sic!] Zam-Zammah too” (11). In this way, Kipling does not question the colonial hierarchy of the English in British India but rather asserts their dominance “before writing about hybridity where lines between races [...] become blurred” (Abu Baker 87). With regard to this statement, another aspect of identity in the novel comes up. There is obviously a mixture of cultures in British India at that time and identity provides the chance of finding oneself within this mess. That is why Kim starts asking himself who he is when his identity is called into question. Therefore, identity and how it is determined is an essential subject within Kipling’s novel.

Identity is without doubt a very complex phenomenon, which is usually only (and falsely) composed of external aspects of one’s personality. It can already be seen in Kim that “there are so many axes of identification, so many specificities that constitute subjects that have to be considered” (Sarup 181). One aspect of identity is class or, particularly in India, caste. Kim, for example, is introduced as “a poor white of the very poorest” (7) and one of the first questions he asks the lama is:

“What is your caste?” (12). Moreover, gender constitutes identity as well; however, since Kim is mostly dominated by male characters, it is scarcely of any importance in this novel. What plays a far bigger role is ‘race’, or rather skin colour. Kim “was burned black as any native” (7), the lama’s “face was yellow” (11) and the Mahratta, another member of the Great Game, could change his colour of skin, and thus his identity, with “a yellow-ochre paint cake” (271). A further aspect, which is often omitted, is the importance of clothes in determining identity, as if to say: show me what you wear and I tell you who you are! So, Lurgan Sahib was “a sahib in that he wore sahib’s clothes” (202). Also Kim changes his appearance several times with the help of clothes, for example, when he was together with Mahbub Ali during his school holidays, being “externally at least, a Muhammadan” (176). However, in this context, not skin colour and clothes but origin and parentage are finally decisive. Kim is namely, despite his outward appearance, officially regarded as Irish and a sahib due to his father and the relevant documents like his birth certificate. Consequently, this general process of ‘identification’ is rather superficial since it does not include somebody’s culture and soul.

So, in addition, a person’s culture has an enormous impact on one’s identity. First of all, religion is an important part of culture. That is why Kim wonders: “What am I? Mussulman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist?” (192), although he should know, as Mahbub Ali directly responds, that he is “beyond question an unbeliever” (192). Language also plays an essential role in establishing identity in Kim since it unifies a group of people and excludes others. Thus, it is stressed that Kim “spoke the vernacular by preference” (7), is “thinking as usual in Hindustani” (55f) and, later, he, but also Hurree Babu, are constantly switching between English and Hindi (292- 299). Finally, many times in the novel it is referred to customs in order to assert one’s identity. Identity is also what we do and how we do it. For example, at their reunion, the old soldier and his son “embraced as do father and son in the East” (81), whereas Kim “drank native-fashion” (25) and “held out his hand English-fashion” (353) to the Woman of Shamlegh. Nevertheless, especially the customs in Kim are very often stereotypical: Kim hates snakes since “[n]o native training can quench the white man’s horror of the serpent” (62). This statement is obviously a cliché and there are many more examples of this throughout the novel. In conclusion, identity is composed of many different aspects, including cultural characteristics, which makes the process of determining identity even more complicated.

2.2 Development of Kim’s Identity throughout the Novel

The most interesting and complex identity in Kipling’s novel is Kim’s identity or rather identities. Therefore, it is necessary to have a closer look on the development of his identity. As Jeffrey Meyers points out in his essay about Kim’s search for identity, the novel follows a “tripartite structure” which reflects Kim’s “three principal roles in the novel--disciple, student, and spy [...]” (Meyers 105). Firstly, until Kim finally meets the Irish regiment, he is content with his undefined identity. Due to the exposure to the sun on the streets of Lahore, Kim “was burned black as any native”, “spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain singsong” and “consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazaar” (7). Although he knows about his origin, he feels comfortable in the country where he has spent his entire life and even tries to escape his white identity (9). Nevertheless, Kim’s identity is not depicted explicitly, he is neither Hindu nor anything else, he is the “Little Friend of all the World” (9) and “borrow[s] right- and left-handedly from all the customs of the country he knew and loved” (101). In this part of the novel, Kipling both confirms and denies Kim’s European identity (cf. Sullivan 151). On the one hand, there are his Oriental qualities and his being recognized as a “casteless Hindu” (93); on the other hand, it is often referred to his whiteness and Irish origin: “‘Oh, Mahbub Ali, but am I a Hindu?’ said Kim in English” (31). Thus, although there is no specific identification for Kim, he does not suffer any identity crisis; however, this changes when his prophecy, the “Red Bull on a green field” (8), comes true.

In this second part of the story, the turning point in Kim’s identity formation, both the European and the Oriental side in him compete. That is why Kim starts considering “his own identity, a thing he had never done before” (159). After he has been identified as the son of an Irish soldier, he turns from being “a native” to being “not very black” (117) and even “certainly white” (118). Hence, skin colour seems to depend largely on the perspective of the beholder. This can especially be seen later on, when a sweeper says: “There is a white boy by the barracks waiting under a tree who is not a white boy” (136). When Kim begins his studies, he is prepared to “pray to Bibi Miriam” and accepts that he is “a sahib” (158). This identity formation corresponds with the process of labelling, which underlines that when “[p]eople attach certain labels to others […] the labels often (but not always) begin to have an effect” (Sarup 14).


1 Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. 1901. London: Penguin, 1994. If not otherwise noted, quotes will be taken from this edition with the page numbers in brackets.

2 Evidently, having an Irish father and an Irish mother, Kim is by no means ‘English.’ On the one hand, since this statement is written out of Kim’s perspective, he probably does not know better. Whereas, on the other hand, Kipling may have wanted to emphasize how the British colonies are taken up in the central culture, thus, England. However, in this paper, Kipling’s choice of an Irish identity for his protagonist will not be further analysed.


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Title: «Who Is Kim?» Determining Identity in Rudyard Kipling’s "Kim"