- Kipling’s Art of Fiction, 1884–1901 by David Sergeant
Rudyard kipling did not see himself, as many literary critics see him today, primarily as a writer about empire. Instead, as his memoir, Something of Myself (1937), suggests, he viewed himself as a writer pure and simple: a craftsman in that down-to-earth sense in which writers are apt to refer to themselves. In his monograph, David Sergeant believes that, in the wake of Edward Said’s widely influential reading of Kipling’s Kim (1901) and with the rise of postcolonial criticism in general, contemporary critics have lost sight of this side—the formal, aesthetic, sensuous side—of Kipling. For Sergeant, a practicing poet himself, “it is this sense of Kipling as a writer of the paint-box as well as public affairs that needs resuscitating” (3). With this book—a fresh, perceptive, intelligent, and provocative look at the first half of Kipling’s career as a fiction writer—Sergeant hopes that he “can convincingly re-establish him [Kipling] as a major artist” (3).
Sergeant begins the task of reinstatement by shrewdly differentiating between two modes of fiction in Kipling’s output between 1884, the year in [End Page 165] which he first began publishing short stories in an Anglo-Indian newspaper, and 1901, the year in which Kim was published. Drawing upon the widely held view of Kipling as a two-sided artist, Sergeant distinguishes between the writer’s “authoritarian” and “complex” narratives (4): those narratives, that is, that seek to persuade readers of the legitimacy of reigning political structures (the British Empire in India) and those that, without any conscious design upon readers, challenge, question, or even undermine the authority of such structures. Whereas the authoritarian fictions rely on clearly defined and hierarchical types that are often doubled (as in the staunch colonial servant and the unruly “native”), the complex narratives work to undo these opposed binaries, creating unexpected similarities between seemingly antonymic types or producing hybrids of these types that are startlingly liminal. The strongest sections of Sergeant’s book are his interpretations of Kipling’s complex short stories. In his subtle readings of the most successful narratives of Kipling’s early career—for example, “The Story of Muhammad Din” (1886) and “On Greenhow Hill” (1890)—Sergeant provides the finest close readings of these tales. Although the section on the Mowgli tales is also full of wonderful insights—particularly into “Kipling’s fascination with demarcated structure and movement” (125)—as a whole, this part is less successful. In separating the authoritarian from the complex tales in the Mowgli series, Sergeant disrupts the unity that Kipling intended by placing these stories together in The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895).
The culmination of Sergeant’s analysis is the long penultimate chapter on Kim. This chapter is, on the one hand, the most ardently argued and, on the other, the most controversial part of his book, for here his praise of Kipling’s artistry is most heartfelt and his engagement with his opponents (Said et al.) most vigorous. For Sergeant, current criticism of the novel is stuck in a postcolonial gear, too insistent on seeing the novel as a historical document rather than as the beautifully balanced work of art that it is—the highpoint of Kipling’s experiments in complex narrative. Sergeant blames postcolonial critics with so forcibly projecting their own political interests on the novel that they blind themselves to the work’s rich aesthetic and spiritual achievement, seen especially in the doubling of the main characters’ quite different but complementary pursuits: Kim’s search, in the phenomenal world, for his adult vocation and the lama’s quest, in the spiritual realm, for salvation. As with his readings of “The Story of Muhammad Din” and “On Greenhow Hill,” Sergeant sees Kim as a form of romance that, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, “make[s] a pattern”—“a web at once sensuous and logical”—here witnessed in the dissimilar but balanced quests of Kim and the lama (qtd...