Sunday, June 15, 2014
Rudyard Kipling and Craft of Fable: Part II: "Without Benefit of Clergy," "Mary Postgate," "The Gardener":
When I posted Part I of my discussion of Kipling's short stories last week, I really wasn't sure anyone would be interested in him in this day and age. But the post, which included a discussion of "The Man Who Would Be King," received a fairly large number of views. Thank you. What follows is the conclusion of a draft of the chapter on Kipling in the book I am working on entitled A Critical History of the British Short Story. I would appreciate comments and suggestions.
The tenuous world of fable is also the subject of Kipling's other well-known India tale, "Without Benefit of Clergy." This story has already been analyzed thoroughly by Eliot L. Gilbert who offers an existential reading of the tale, suggesting that in its depiction of an absurd universe it is very much like the conclusion of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Gilbert says that the threat of disaster broods over the story and that the "sense of the irrationality of life is always lurking in the background." The basic theme of the story, says Gilbert, is the futility of ritual and conventions as a hedge against disaster. However, he suggests a moral interpretation of the characters' need for order; for the need implies a distaste for the world as it is and a great longing "to substitute for the disorganized reality of today, the perfectly structured artifice of tomorrow." Eliot suggests that Kipling is saying here that the untidy reality of today is the only reality there is and that life has a law of compensation which decrees that provision for the future must be made at the expense of the present.
Such a reading, although perhaps justifiable in terms of the content of the story, ignores the fabular structure of the tale and insists that the story exists in a cosmic reality of external "justice" or "retribution." However, what the story actually depicts is the typical "double life" of fiction itself in that John Holden lives in two worlds--the world of everyday reality of his government job and the self-created fantasy world of his life with Ameera. The first is a world governed by the rules and laws of society, whereas the second violates all rules and laws of the first by attempting to set up purely aesthetic laws of its own. In the social world, Holden must conceal all traces of both happiness and sorrow in his fantasy world where Ameera is all the world in his eyes and exists only for him: "When the big wooden gate was bolted behind him he was king in his own territory, with Ameera for queen." The child that is expected when the story begins is a symbol of the bond that exists between them, an embodiment of their complete devotion to one another.
Just as in "The Man Who Would be King," although certainly here with a different tone, the fabular nature of "Without Benefit of Clergy" is characterized by Biblical language and poetic talk, talk which Ameera characterizes as "very good talk." Indeed, it is talk that perpetuates the fantasy situation, for dialogue is the central means by which the story is told. The story opens with dialogue about the impending birth of the child and continues throughout with Holden and Ameera speaking in "thees" and "thous" and trying to live within a world of "good talk," even though Ameera finds that with the birth of the child, she must have "straight talk" and "very hard talk" in a way that she did not have to think of before.
It is not that the child must die in order to prove that ritual is not a hedge against cosmic reality, but rather the child must die because he is a concrete symbol of the intangible fantasy world that holds Holden and Ameera together. However, the problem is that the child is not only symbol but also external reality; that is, he is heir to the rules that govern the external world, rather than a creature solely of the "good talk" that governs the fantasy world. In the terms of the fable, when Holden asserts his individuality he escapes the realm of symbol, and thus his death destroys the fantasy world itself. The death of Ameera is only the ultimate objectification of the death of the fantasy world which is finally objectified in the destruction of the house so that the fantasy world becomes as if it had never existed at all. Just as in "The Man Who Would be King," the fantasy world can exist only so long as external reality is not allowed to intrude, only so long as the participants of the fable can maintain their separation in a world of their own making.
And the only guess the reader can make is based on her reaction to news of Wyndham's death. "The room was whirling round Mary Postgate, but she found herself quite steady in the midst of it." Passivity is indeed Mary's primary characteristic, passivity and what Miss Fowler recognizes as her "deadly methodical" nature. Mary's true imaginative relationship to Wyndham is indicated by her preparations to burn all of his things. The extremely long list of items that fill almost a page of text indicates, without sentimentalizing, Mary's devotion to Wyndham. But it is the death of the child in town by a bomb that more fully objectifies Mary's relationship to the dead young man. After she sees the ripped and shredded body of the child, she uses Wyndham's words about the enemy: "'Bloody pagans!' They are bloody pagans. But,' she continued, falling back on the teaching that had made her what she was, 'one mustn't let one's mind dwell on these things.'" By the time she reaches home, the affair seems remote by its very monstrousness.
However, as she prepares the sacrificial oil to burn the remaining possessions of Wyndham, the images of Wyndham and the child return in the person of the downed enemy pilot. As the pilot asks for help, she cries, "Ich haben der todt Kinder gesehn." And the dead child she has seen is of course not only the child in the village, but also the image of Wyndham, the only child, in her passivity, she has ever had. As the pilot cries for help, she screams, "Stop that, you bloody pagan" in Wyndham's own words. Consequently, the pilot becomes not a human being, but a thing responsible for the death of Wyndham and the child in the village. As she hums and tends the fire, she thinks, "if it did not die before [tea-time] she would be soaked and have to change."
Mary's primary characteristics of passivity and method serve her well here as she thinks with a secret thrill that she can be useful in the war effort. As she waits for the man to die, "an increasing rapture laid hold on her. She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel. Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life." When the sound of death does come, she says, "That's all right," just as she has said when she found out that Wyndham had fallen from four thousand feet. After she goes to the house and takes a luxurious hot bath before tea, Miss Fowler finds her relaxed on the sofa, looking "quite handsome!"
Like "Mary Postgate," Kipling's most famous story, "The Gardener," also depends on concealment of an inner life for its effect. And Like "Without Benefit of Clergy," it depends on the notion of a double life, a split between external reality and a tenuous inner reality. Both Edmund Wilson and Frank O'Connor call "The Gardner" Kipling's best story, even a masterpiece, but, as so often the case with Kipling criticism, they do so with reservations. Edmund Wilson believes that the story is not of the highest quality because of the fairy tale properties of the ending. O'Connor also has serious reservations about the conclusion of the story when Helen goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of her illegitimate son and meets a man she supposes to be the gardener, thus echoing the mistake of Mary Magdalene when she goes to the tomb and meets the resurrected Jesus.
The impact of the conclusion of the tale depends, of course, on the fact that Kipling has concealed the truth about the boy being Helen's son throughout the story. O'Connor accepts the argument that such a concealment might be justified by the fact that Helen herself has concealed this knowledge from the village, but still he does not believe that this rescues the story. O'Connor says that had he written the story he would have revealed the illegitimacy at the beginning. The result would be to remove the story from the world of celestial gardeners and place it in the real world, thus indicating throughout that "The Gardner" is a story of Helen's heroism in bringing the child home in the first place (l0l-l03).
Eliot Gilbert has tackled these objections to the story directly and has suggested that Kipling is not guilty of trickery here, but instead has concealed the facts of Helen's case as an essential echo of the theme of concealment which prepares the reader to experience the same shock that Helen does at the end. He argues that the supernatural ending "represents the final intensification of the author's vision, too compressed and cryptic to find expression within the realistic framework of the rest of the tale." However, as excellent as Gilbert's discussion is in rescuing the story, it still would not dismiss O'Connor's misgivings, nor does it clearly explain why Kipling's vision requires the so-called supernatural conclusion.
The basic technique of the story depends on a gap between details that are "public property," that is, details which the village is aware of and which in turn the reader knows, and unwritten details which are private property, known only to Helen herself. What is public is a lie and what is private is the truth. Furthermore, what is ugly in the public eye is revealed as beautiful in the eye of the reader at the conclusion. The basic question is: what makes the truth beautiful at the end? Even at the conclusion, Helen does not accept the young man as her son, still referring to him as her nephew, thus continuing the protective lie she has perpetuated throughout the story. The irony, however, lies in the fact that Helen's heroism depends precisely on this concealment, for it is obviously done not for her own sake, but for her child's.
The death of the boy and his mysterious spontaneous burial under the shelled foundation of a barn marks the psychic death of Helen also, for in her double life, she truly has lived, like Mary Postgate, only for her son. The resurrection of his body marks a parallel resurrection for her as she makes her trip to visit the grave. Mrs. Scarsworth is, as other critics have well noted, an embodiment of Helen's split self and thus echoes her previous position. Mrs. Scarsworth tells Helen that she is tired of lying. "When I don't tell lies I've got to act 'em and I've got to think 'em always. You don't know what that means." Helen of course knows precisely what that means, but even though she is the one most able to directly sympathize with Mrs. Scarsworth, still she cannot tell the truth, for that truth is ugly within the profane world.
However, what is ugly to the profane world is finally revealed as beautiful within the realm of the sacred. Helen, who is both Mary Magdalene, the fallen, and Mary the mother of Christ, goes to find the grave of her son and savior and is directed to it by the ultimate embodiment of the sacred. It seems inevitable, in a story which deals with a double life-- the life of public property and the life of private emotion--that the ultimate incarnation of spirit within body in Western culture should be the means by which the secret of spirit is revealed to the reader. The secret revealed at the end of the story is the same as the one revealed when Mary comes to look for the body of Christ--that is, that he is not here, but has arisen--that is, that he is not body but spirit. The true reality of the story is the reality of the sacred and always hidden world, which is sacred precisely because of its hidden nature.
As is usually the case in short fiction, it is the world of spirit, the world of the sacred that constitutes the truth, and that truth, regardless of what it appears to be within the profane framework, is always beautiful. It is not so much that Kipling plays a supernatural trick at the end of the story, but rather that he needs an ultimate embodiment of spirit within body to communicate the ironic reversal of the apparent lie being the most profound truth. The not-told of the short story is more important than what is told, for what cannot be told directly always constitutes the ideal nature of story itself.
Allen, Walter. The Short Story in English. Oxford: Clarendon, l98l.
Dobree, Bonamy. Rudyard Kipling: Realist and Fabulist. Oxford UP, l967.
Fussell, Paul. "Irony, Freemasonry, and Humane Ethics in Kipling's 'The Man Who Would Be
King." English Literary History 25 (1958): 2l6-33.
Gilbert, Eliot L. The Good Kipling: Studies in the Short Story. Athens: Ohio UP, l970). 21-49.
James, Henry. "The Young Kipling." Kipling and the Critics. Ed. Elliot L. Gilbert. NY UP, l965.
Lewis, C. S. "Kipling's World." Kipling and the Critics. Ed. Elliot L. Gilbert. NY UP, l965.
O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice. Cleveland, Ohio: World, l963.
Robson, W.W. "Kipling's Later Stories." Kipling's Mind and Art, Ed. Andrew Rutherford. Stanford UP, 1964.
Wilson, Edmund. "The Kipling that Nobody Read." Kipling's Mind and Art. Ed. Andrew
Rutherford. Stanford UP, l964.
Lionel Trilling's essay from The Liberal Imagination is reprinted in Kipling and the Critics, pp.
Edmund Wilson's essay from The Wound and the Bow is reprinted in Kipling's Mind and Art, pp.