Monday, June 9, 2014

Rudyard Kipling and the Craft of Fable: Part I--"The Man Who Would Be King"

            As I mentioned some time ago, I am working on a critical history of the British short story, focusing on the generic characteristics of the form as reflected in major short stories since the eighteenth century. In this post and one next week, I discuss what I consider to be the crucial generic issues in four stories by Rudyard Kipling. Works Cited will appear at the end of Part II.

            Hardly anyone talks about Rudyard Kipling's fiction any more, especially his short fiction. However there was a time when Kipling received quite a bit of attention, much of it negative.  I suggest it might be worth noting that the caustic criticism Kipling's short stories once received is precisely the same kind of criticism that has often been lodged against the short story form in general--for example, that the genre focuses only on episodes, that it is too concerned with technique, that it is too dependent on tricks, and that it often lacks a moral force.

         Henry James noted that the young Kipling realized very early the uniqueness of the short story, seeing what chances the form offered for "touching life in a thousand different places, taking it up in innumerable pieces, each a specimen and an illustration." In a word, James argued, Kipling appreciates the episode" (l8). However, it is just this appreciation for the episode, according to influential critic Edmund Wilson, that prevented Kipling from becoming a great novelist: "You can make an effective short story, as Kipling so often does, about somebody's scoring off somebody else; but this is not enough for a great novelist, who must show us large social forces, or uncontrollable lines of destiny, or antagonistic impulses of the human spirit, struggling with one another" (32).

         Moreover, it is not simply because Kipling could not "graduate," as it were, to the novel that critics have found fault with him. Irish short story great Frank O'Connor confesses his embarrassment in discussing Kipling's stories in comparison with master storytellers like Chekhov and Maupassant, for he feels that Kipling has too much consciousness of the individual reader as an audience who must be affected. C. S. Lewis also recoiled from Kipling for similar reasons. Complaining about what he calls the excess of Kipling's art, he cites how he constantly shortened and honed his stories by blotting out passages with Indian ink. Ultimately, says Lewis, the story is often shortened too much and as a result "the style tends to be too continuously and obtrusively brilliant" with no "leisureliness." 

        Lewis's criticism is similar to Edmund Wilson's, for it suggests displeasure with Kipling's stories because they are not based on the same assumptions as the novel. Lionel Trilling notes that the words "craft" and "craftily" are Kipling's favorites, and Wilson says that it is the paradox of his career that he "should have extended the conquests of his craftsmanship in proportion to the shrinking of the range of his dramatic imagination. As his responses to human beings became duller, his sensitivity to his medium increased."

         Such remarks indicate a failure to make generic distinctions between the nature of the novel and the nature of the short story; they either ignore or fail to take seriously Stevenson's realization that the tale form does not focus on character, but rather on fable and on the meaning of an episode in an ideal form. Bonamy Dobree has noted this fabular aspect of Kipling's stories, suggesting that as Kipling's mastery of the short story form increased, he became more and more inclined to introduce an element of fable. "Great realist as he was, it is impossible to see what he was really saying unless the fabular element is at least glimpsed" (l67).

         However, the fabular element, so common to the short story form, is often criticized as being limiting in Kipling, as indeed over the years it has been a central cause of criticism of short fiction generally. For example, W. W. Robson has suggested that Kipling's desire to have complete possible control of his form and medium, while it can lead to impressive achievements in fantasy and fable, "can also lead to a simplification and distortion of human character" (260).

        Such a judgment assumes that human character in fiction is constituted solely of conduct, that character is created and revealed by the actions of man in time and space, in the real world.  And indeed, such an assumption is typical of the expectations we have about character in the novel form. However, such need not be an assumption of character in the short story. As Isak Dinesen has suggested in her story "The First Cardinal's Tale," the tale or short story form is one that focuses on an idealization-- not man and woman seen as they are in the everyday world, but rather transformed by the role they play in the story itself. In the short story, it is the fable that is the focus; the characters exist for the sake of the story rather than the story existing for the sake of the characters.

            In this post and one more, I will briefly discuss four of Kipling's best-known stories--"The Man Who Would be King," "Without Benefit of Clergy," "Mary Postgate," and "The Gardener" in an attempt to identify the essential short-story characteristics of Kipling's work. I do not claim that these stories are not highly crafted, that they do not involve unrealistic character, that they do not depend on artifice. For in many ways, they must stand guilty of such charges. 

     What I do wish to suggest is that such charges are not necessarily damaging, for they indicate that Kipling was perhaps the first English writer to embrace the characteristics of the short story form whole-heartedly, and that thus his stories are perfect representations of the transition point between the old-fashioned tale of the nineteenth century and the modern twentieth-century short story--a transition, however, which Joseph Conrad, because of the profundity of his vision, perhaps was better able to make than Kipling.

         One of Kipling's most Conrad-like stories is one of his earliest pieces, "The Man Who Would Be King," which Henry James called an "extraordinary tale" and which many critics have suggested is a typical Kipling social parable about British imperialism in India. Walter Allen calls it a "great and heroic story," but says that Kipling evades the metaphysical issues implicit in the story and refuses to venture on the great generalizations forced upon Conrad in "Heart of Darkness" (67-68). In perhaps the best discussion of the story, Paul Fussell, Jr. calls "The Man Who Would Be King" "a zany exemplum" in which fantastic burlesque events cloak a sober theme. However, Fussell does not carry this notion of burlesque very far, contenting himself with a discussion of the Biblical and Masonic allusions in the piece. 

            Fussell suggests that much of the plot of "The Man Who Would Be King" constitutes a "virtual parody of Biblical history," but he does not understand that such a burlesque and parody tone and structure might be the basic motivation of the story. Instead he concludes by suggesting that although the story embodies a Christian-Masonic commonplace moral that a man who would be a king must learn to rule himself, Kipling ennobles the theme and rescues it from being obvious by giving it an ironic treatment. The story, says Fussell, has a tone of serious playfulness stemming from Freemasonry which must have struck Kipling as both profound and silly at once.  "It is precisely this knowing Masonic tone which provides 'The Man Who Would be King' with the paradoxical comic-pathetic quality which is the major secret of both the brilliance of its narrative technique and the rich humanity of its ethical import."

         While I agree with Fussell that the secret to the story is its tone, I feel that Fussell's concern for theme prevents him from seeing that indeed tone and style are everything in the tale.  The story primarily focuses on the crucial difference between a tale told by a narrator who merely reports a story and a narrator who lives a story. The frame narrator is a journalist whose job it is to report the doings of "real kings," whereas Peachey, the inner narrator has as his task the reporting of the events of a "pretend king."  This situation reflects a basic fictional problem:  The primary narrator tells us the story of Peachey and Davrot, which although it is fiction, is presented as if it were reality. The secondary narrator tells us a story of Peachey and Davrot in which the two characters project themselves out of the "as-if" real world of the story into the purely projected and fictional world of their adventure. 

            The tone of the tale reflects the journalist narrator's bemused attitude toward the pair of unlikely heroes and his incredulity about their "idiotic adventure." "The beginning of everything," he describes, was his meeting with Peachey in a railway train when he learns that the two are posing as correspondents for the newspaper for which the narrator is indeed a real correspondent. Role-playing is an important motif in the story, for indeed Peachey and Davrot are always playing roles, for they are essentially vagabonds and loafers with no real identity of their own.  

     After the narrator returns to his office and becomes "respectable," Peachey and Davrot interrupt this respectability (characterized by the narrator's concern for the everyday reality that constitutes the subject of his work) to tell him of their fantastic plan and to try to obtain from him a factual framework for the country where they hope to become kings. "We have come to you to know about this country, to read a book about it, and to be shown maps," says Carnehan. "We want you to tell us that we are fools and to show us your books." The mythic proportions of the two men, or rather their story-book proportions, for mythic sounds like too serious a word here for the grotesque adventurers, are indicated by the narrator's amused awareness that Davrot's red beard seems to fill half the room and Carnehan's huge shoulders fill the other half.

         The actual adventure begins with more role-playing as Davrot pretends to be a mad priest (an ironic image that he indeed is to fulfill later) marching forward with whirligigs (playful crosses?) to sell as charms to the savages. The narrator again becomes "respectable" and turns his attention to the obituaries of real kings in Europe until three years later, Peachey returns, a "whining cripple" to confront the narrator with his story that he and Davrot have been crowned kings in Kafiristan, and "you've been sitting here ever since--oh, Lord!"  Peachey's inserted story is thus posed over against the pedestrian story of the narrator's situation and is contrasted to it by its fantastic, story-like nature in which indeed Peachey and Davrot have set themselves up as fictional kings in a real country.

            The story-like nature of the adventure is indicated first of all by Peachey's frequent confusing of himself with Davrot and by his frequent reference to himself in the third person.  "There was a party called Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan that was with Davrot. Shall I tell you about him? He died out there in the cold. Slap from the bridge fell old Peachey, turning and twisting in the air like a penny whirligig, or I am much mistaken and woeful sore...."  As Peachey tells his tale, he insists that the narrator continue to look him in the eye, thus becoming an image of the Ancient Mariner who holds the wedding guest by his glittering eye and thus links the listener and teller in a story-made bond.

            As Paul Fussell has suggested, the events that Peachey tells suggests a parody of Biblical history, and indeed Peachey and Davrot often speak to the people Davrot calls the "lost tribe" in Biblical language. The purpose of these Biblical allusions is to give Peachey's tale an externally-imposed story framework, indeed the most basic and dignified story framework in Western culture. The progress of Davrot's becoming king moves from fighting to craft via masonic ritual, a ritual that reaffirms Davrot's superior position and controls his followers.  

     However, since Davrot has projected himself into the role of god as king, and thus assumes a position in the kingdom as the fulfillment of prophecy and legend, he is bound to this particular role. It is only when he wishes to escape the pre-established role and marry a native girl that his world falls apart. When he is bitten by his frightened intended bride, the cry, "Neither God nor Devil, but a man," breaks the spell and propels Davrot and Peachey out of the fictional world and back into reality again.

            The fact that Peachy and Davrot are really only over-determined doubles of each other is indicated not only by Peachey's reference to himself as suffering Davrot's fate, but also by the fact that if Davrot is the ambiguous god-man, Peachey is the one who must be crucified. Kipling finds it necessary of course to make this split, for he must not only have his god-man die, but he must have him resurrected as well. Peachey is the resurrected figure who brings the head of Davrot, still with its crown, back to tell the tale to the narrator. Peachey's final madness and death and the mysterious disappearance of the crowned head are the ironic fulfillment of a final escape from external reality.

         It seems clear from the serio-comic tone and the parody use of Biblical story and language that what Kipling is attempting in "The Man Who Would be King" is a burlesque version of a basic dichotomy in the nature of story itself. The narrator, who deals with real events in the world, tells a story of one who in turn tells a story of fantastic events in which the real world is transformed into the fabular nature of story itself. Davrot/Peachey project themselves into a purely story world, but once accepted there, they cannot break the code of the roles they have assumed.

            When they do make such an effort, the story they have created, and thus the roles they have played, become foregrounded as roles only and crumble like a house of cards. The man who would be a king can only be a king in the pretend world of story itself, and then only as long as story-world or story-reality is maintained. A story character cannot be human, for when he attempts to become real, i.e., when he begins to take his story status as true reality, the story ends. 

     It is little wonder that "The Man Who Would be King" has such a comic tone, for truly what Kipling is playing with here is not the nature of empires, but the nature of story. If one wishes to read the story as a parable of the tenuous and fictionally-imposed nature of British imperialism, then such a reading is possible, but only because the story primarily is about the essentially tenuous nature of the fable world itself.

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