Rudyard Kipling's Kim  (1901) Penguin edition with introduction  and  notes by Edward Said (1989).


Rudyard Kiping (1865 - 1936) was born in India where he also worked as a journalist between 1881 and 1889.  Much of his writing has an Indian setting, including his children's book, the Jungle Book and Kim, which, though written for young readers, is widely considered to be his finest full length novel.  In 1907, Kipling received the Noble Prize for Literature.  Kipling wrote about Empire; Said calls Kim "a masterpiece of imperialism" (p 45).  Unlike Conrad, he did not offer any negative assessment of the imperial project.  On the contrary, for him it represented high adventure.  It was Europe's moral duty to 'enlighten' the non-white world.  Kipling believed in racial difference, that is, in European superiority and for him British rule in India was a solid fact, beyond any challenge.  Said writes that, 'Kipling could no more have questioned this difference, and the right of the white European to rule, than he would have argued with the Himalayas' (p 10).  Much of what Kipling believed about Empire is set forth in his famous poem, "The White Man's Burden" (1899).

            Take up the White Man's burden -

            Send forth the best ye breed -

            Go bind your sons to exile

            To serve your captives' needs;

            On fluttered folk and wild -

            Your new-caught, sullen people, 

            Half devil and hall child.


After publication, this poem became the cause of a great deal of debate.  For some, it offered a moral justification for imperialism.  However, imperialism and the racial assumptions of Kipling's poem also had their critics.  More than fifty anti-imperial parodies of the poem appeared.  Far from being the 'rigorous system in which law and ordered prevailed', suggested the responses, the British Empire was no better than any other based on "robbery and profit" (Said, p 35). Much of this debate took place in the context of the United States' war in the Philippines and of her intervention in Cuba.  One parody went like this:


The Brown Man's Burden

By Henry Labouchère

                                Truth (London); reprinted in Literary Digest 18 (Feb. 25, 1899).


                                          Pile on the brown man's burden

                                                 To gratify your greed;

                                          Go, clear away the "niggers"

                                                 Who progress would impede;

                                          Be very stern, for truly

                                                 'Tis useless to be mild

                                          With new-caught, sullen peoples,

                                                 Half devil and half child.

For this debate, see Zim Zwick's '"The White Man's Burden" and Its Critcs' at


In another poem, "The Ballad of East and West" (1889) Kipling expressed the idea that East and West represent two irremediably different worlds, an assumption which Said says stands at the center of the Orientalist mindset.


Kipling wrote:

            Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet

            Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgement Seat,

            But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.


Kipling did seem to think that some sort of manly equality could exist between the white man and members of the so-called "military races".   He admired the Pathans, the Sikhs and the Rajputs though he considered that the best of these were those who laid down their lives for their white masters (Khushwant Singh, 1994 p 15).  He despised the Bengali babus, who "were to him effeminate and cunning … only fit to be lower grade clerks" but who were actually starting to occupy senior posts in the Indian Civil Service (ibid).    Kipling had a distinctive understanding of 'boyhood' that is important for a reading of Kim. His ideal boy was versatile, inventive, charming, able to "serve" yet have fun at the same time, like a boy-scout.   "Service is more enjoyable when thought of as less like a story - linear, continuous, tempral - and more like a playing field - many-dimensional, discontinuous, spatial" (Said, 1994 p 138). Kim has been described as a 'man's novel'.  Almost all its main characters are men and as Said points out, 'the women in the novel are remarkably few in number … and all somehow debased or unsuitable for male attention: prostitutes or elderly widows, or importunate and lusty women like the Woman of Shamlegh" (p 12).


In the novel, Kim, "little friend of all the world" looks and speaks like an Indian boy but is actually a military orphan, "a poor white of the very poorest" (p 49).   He befriends a Tibetan lama, who is searching for redemption from the wheel of life. This is in the form of a "river".  Kim becomes the lama's young aide, almost his guide; "Kipling is clear about showing us that the lama, while a wise and good man, needs Kim's youth, his guidance, his wits" (p 15).  Kipling could not conceive of an Indian being in control.  The lama, though, is sympathetically portrayed in the text.  Several passages demonstrate Kipling's accurate knowledge of Buddhism, such as the telling of a Jataka tale (a story of one of the Buddha's previous lives) in chapter nine, pp 213 - 214.  Kipling (raised a Methodist), though, is less interested in religion for its own sake than as a way of adding color and exotic flavor to his narrative (Said, p 15).


 Kim has already had regular dealings with Mahbub Ali, the horse dealer who is really an agent for Colonel Creighten, head of the secret service (p 69) before his adventures with the lama begin.  In chapter 5, he accidentally falls into the hands of his father's old regiment while trying to retrieve information about the identity of a mysterious "Red Bull" that features in a prophecy at the beginning of the novel (p 50). However, the lama agrees to pay Kim's schooling, once he reconciles himself to the fact that his young guide is a white man, "But no white man knows the land and the customs of the land as thou knowest …." (p 139).  From school, Kim goes off with his lama for holiday adventures.  He is also recruited by Colonel Creighton to play the "Great Game', for which Kim, with his command of language and of disguise, is excellently qualified.  The "Great Game" is basically Britain's rule of India. Colonel Creighton, under the guise of the Indian Survey, an ethnographical exercise, is the master spy.  Kim gets involved in foiling a plot by Russians to compromise India's security.


Throughout the novel, Kim is also searching for his own identity.  He is told never to forget that he is a Sahib (p 191) but reflects, "In the madrissah [school, the Muslim term for a religious school] I will be a Sahib.  But when the madrissah is shut, then must I be free and go among my people. Otherwise I die …" (p 184).  Later, Kim says to his Lama, "I am not a Sahib.  I am thy chela  [disciple …" (p 319). What Kipling does with both Kim and Creighton, the two Europeans, is to show how both can 'enjoy' India, its exotic sights, its languages, its customs (Said, p 42).  Not only can Europeans make careers in the East, as colonial officers, or profit there, as merchants they can also enjoy a world much more exciting than the "dull, mediocre and lustreless world of the European bourgeosie" (ibid).  Kim can apparently speak any language he needs to! (Said, p 42). Both these Europeans are somehow able to move at ease in this chaotic and colorful context, both can make sense of its complexity, so much so that Kipling all but suggests that minus the British, India would fall apart.  Said doubts if Indians were ever really taken in by 'the blue or green-eyed Kims … just as I doubt if there ever existed any white man or woman within the orbit of empire who ever forgot … the discrepancy in power between the white rulers and the native subject" (p 44).  The Inidan independence movement, well under way by 1901, is conspicuous by its absence.  


No Indian could equal Creighton's knowledge of Indian custom.  Here, he is depicted as ethnographical expert.  Often, colonial officials were also scholars, sometimes amateur, sometimes able to hold their own in academic circles.  Creighton represents a combination of 'knowledge' and 'power'.  He 'knows' India; therefore he is qualified to rule India. Kipling has one of his characters, an old Indian lady whose party travels for a while with Kim and the lama, say this to a passing English Policeman, "These be the sort to dispense justice.  They know the land and the customs of the people.  The others, new from Europe … learning our tongue from books, are worse than the pestilence" (p 124). We shall see a similar sentiment expressed in the text of Forster's A Passage to India.   Kipling also allows another Indian character to render a very British and un-Indian account of the so-called mutiny of 1857 (p 100; see Said p 26).


Creighton's aspiring Bengali assistant, Hurree Babu, clearly knowledgeable, is depicted as "the stereotypical … ontologically funny native, hopelessly trying to be like us" but incapable of emulating Creighton's efficiency or achievements (Said, p 33; see Kim pp 222 - 223). His ambition is to become an FRS (p 222) but his articles submitted to Asiatic Quarterly Review have all been rejected (p 229).   The irony here is that British education policy in India, after 1835, aimed to transform an elite Indian student body into Englishmen in taste, morals, and mindset if still Indian color.  Them when this English educated elite asked for a share in government, they were told that they were not yet ready to take on such high responsibility.




Read the description of the Grand Trunk Rd on PP 105 - 104. Reflect on how this image might serrve as a metaphor for all that Kipling believed about British rule for India and for Indians.


Read the comment on the Sikh (p 109) and on Orientals "understanding of time" on  p 70, p 74 and p 190.  Here, Kipling is generalizing about "Orientals", not only about Indians.   Can you identify other passages that represent stereotypical ideas about particular people or about all Orientals?


Does Kim resolve his quest for "identity" and is he well served by those who take command of his life?


Reflect on the lama's comments p 191  (last paragraph).  Do you think that this might reflect Kipling's own views?   How do you evaluate Kipling's treatment of religion in the text and do you agree with Said, cited above, that its presence is more for color than substance?


How are Indians dealt with in this text?  Do you agree that Kipling never questions British superiority or contemplates the end of British rule; "it was India's best destiny to be ruled by England" ( p 23)?


Why do you think Kipling has two characters offering very pro-British sentiments (p 100; p 124).


How do Kipling's Indians compare with Conrad's Africans?  Can you identify Orientalist assumptions that might explain any difference between these two authors' representations of  "natives" in their texts?


Compare and contrast Kipling's characterizations of Mahbub Ali and the Babu.


Describe the relationship between Kim and the lama.  Is Said right to say that of the two, Kim is the real 'leader'?


How are women portrayed in the text and do you agree with Said that the book deals with a man's world of "travel, trade, adventure and intrigue" (p 12)?


How would you characterize Kipling's representation of India in the text? Indian writers have praised his representation of India as having a "stamp of authenticity, especially when he described the common folk, the flora and the fauna.  And his descriptions of the Indian countryside during different seasons reamain unrivalled to this day - in English", says Kushwant Singh (p 9).  Yet Kipling is also accused of creating or of constructing an India that served his purposed, rather than one that reflected its reality (see Said, p 9 - 10). Said calls this construct, "an Orientalized India of the imagination" (1994 p 149).  What image do you think Kipling constructed and how does it fit his imperial vision?


Kipling's admirers have tried to rescue him from himself (Said, p 22).  Read the Wilson quote on p 23 and respond to this evaluation of Kim.  How might you attempt to save Kipling's Kim from the charge that it ultimately de-values Indian life?


Is it possible to detest a writer's politics while appreciating their writing?


Kipling's heroes (Mowgli in Jungle Book, Kim in Kim) are often marginal to their own society.  Kim is a poor, orphaned Irish boy.  What role, if any, does liminality play in this text?  What point is Kipling trying to make and do you think it has any relationship to his imperial vision? (see Said p 38).


© Clinton Bennett 2001