- Narratives of Empire: The Fictions of Rudyard Kipling
It is hard to think of a literary figure whose reputation has had more ups and downs than that of Rudyard Kipling. Though England’s first Nobel laureate for literature in 1907, he was of little consequence to the modernist movement a generation later. In the 1940s he attracted serious attention from critics like T. S. Eliot and Edmund Wilson, but as an imperialist writer was again relegated to the margins of canonicity during the post-1950s era of decolonization.
Now Kipling is back again as the subject of syllabi and dissertations in English departments. Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism compares him to Flaubert and Proust, nay, to Shakespeare himself for “the sheer variousness of his creativity.” At the other end of the ideological spectrum, William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues reprints passages from Kipling as inspiration for “Work,” “Courage,” and “Loyalty.”
Kipling’s unstable position in literary history can be attributed not just to his association with imperialism, but also to the fact that he is notoriously hard to pin down. Eliot calls him “the most elusive of subjects.” Others see Kipling’s manifest love of the people of India as being at odds with his equally manifest faith in the ideals of the British Empire. His readers have differed widely on the question of how well he handles these and other apparently conflicting elements in his work, and even on the question of whether such conflict exists.
Zohreh Sullivan brings to this somewhat confused situation the clarity of a perceptive reader thoroughly informed by recent theories of colonial discourse. Concentrating on Kipling’s early fiction on India, Sullivan [End Page 878] argues that the ambivalence and contradiction characterizing these stories are inherent to colonial discourse itself: “Kipling’s fiction . . . gives full voice to the fragmentation of the colonizer’s many subject positions and ambivalences.” Such an approach is indebted partly to the work of Homi Bhabha, who defines the position of the colonial subject as marked by hybridity, mimicry, repetition, and displacement.
Sullivan shows how in Kipling’s case this complex position is at once psychological, political, and linguistic. On the psychological level, Kipling is divided between desire for the imaginary India of his early childhood and accession to the symbolic order of Empire. Politically, he identifies both with an India “unconnected to the English” and with the colonialist ideology which excludes this possibility. Kipling’s language reflects the anxiety brought on by these contradictions, in stories that explore dreamlike visions of transgression and boundary-loss—visions that are then safely contained within framing devices. Narrative strategies of closure and containment thus reproduce in the realm of discourse the psychological and political structures of repression. Like the colonial subject defined in Bhabha and in psychological critics such as Ashis Nandy, Kipling is both colonizer and colonized, both subject and object of the imperial system of power relations.
Sullivan’s work is representative of the best literary criticism to make use of such theoretical formulations. To the study of colonial discourse, Sullivan offers a thorough and sustained application of the kind of theoretical work that is often merely sketched out by those who produce it. Her strength lies in bringing theory to close readings of stories from such collections as Plain Tales from the Hills (1888) and The Day’s Work (1898), and of Kipling’s one great novel, Kim (1901). She also sheds light on this material from the posthumously published Something of Myself (1937), suggesting ways in which the familial structures of Kipling’s life reproduced those of imperial power.
A further contribution of this work is to connect the formation of Kipling’s discourse to actual historical events. Sullivan points out that Kipling’s writings on India belong specifically to the period following the 1857 Mutiny, when the failure of British rule began to seem possible, and the price of power began to be calculated in human and psychological terms. In Lahore, Kipling the journalist was hissed by fellow members of...